Health Care Back And Forth

Al Gore and George Bush are locking horns over health care, with the Democrat seeking to maintain his momentum in the polls as Republicans launch their first negative ad of the fall campaign.

Gore has announced plans for a week-long focus on health care where aides contend Bush is vulnerable because of "a fundamental difference" between the two.

Seeking to counter that, Bush has begun airing a campaign commercial touting his own health care plan, while the Republican National Committee on Monday plans to launch a $7 million TV ad attack on Gore's proposals.

"Gore opposes bipartisan reform," says the RNC ad, which is set to air in nine states. "He's pushing a big-government plan that lets Washington bureaucrats interfere with what your doctor prescribes."

While Bush aides noted the attack spot isn't run by them, the Bush campaign has veto power over RNC ads - a power which the Texas governor used last week to kill an RNC ad before it aired that questioned Gore's veracity.

"This ad is as negative as it is desperate as it is fabricated," Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said Saturday of the RNC health care ad. "They spend more on television advertising than prescription drug coverage."

Bush campaign spokesman Dan Bartlett countered that the RNC spot is merely a response to Democratic assaults during the summer.

"I would note that the Democrats have run something like $30 million in attack ads on Governor Bush," Bartlett said. "It's highly hypocritical of them to call anything we're doing negative."

On Monday, Gore plans to launch a campaign trail offensive on health care, focusing on an issue aides say breaks well for him as he charges into Labor Day and the traditional kickoff of the fall campaign.

The vice president opens his week in Tallahassee, Fla., touting his plan to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, then heads west to talk about expanding child health coverage in New Mexico.

On a bus trip in Oregon, he'll promote his plan to bolster Medicare and boost spending on medical research, and cap this week's swing in Seattle pushing for a patient's bill of rights.

"Al Gore's agenda translates into good politics in Florida," said Gore spokesman Chris Lehane of the state where Bush's brother, Jeb, is governor.

The Bush campaign said the Clinton-Gore administration hasn't done so well on health care and many Americans go without.

"We sure hope the vice president takes the opportunity to explain why there are eight million more uninsured Americans," said Bartlett. "They've had the opportunity to lead on this issue and they've squandered it."

Gore has offered a $250 billion, 10-year plan to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, while Bush has offered a proposal expanding coverage to low-income seniors, but with few details.

Gore aides were critical of Bush's ad claim that he would make "prescription drugs available and afordable for every senior who needs them" because many seniors don't fall in the "low-income" category that Bush's plan would cover.

The Gore campaign on Saturday held a conference call for reporters with Dr. David Kessler, who headed regulation of drug advertising while running the FDA. He's now dean of the Yale Medical School.

"I used to regulate prescription drug advertising and I know false and misleading ads," said Kessler. "Half of the seniors lacking coverage would not be covered under Governor Bush's plan."

Gore aides said the prescription drug issue affects 39 million Americans in Medicare, including the Baby Boom generation of voters.

For his part, Bush is opening his week in Austin meeting with teachers, trying to keep his focus on education, an issue he sees as central to his campaign. He spent the past week defending his $1.3 trillion tax-cut plan against Gore criticism, muddling his message.

On Tuesday, Bush heads to Maine and New Hampshire, and plans campaign swings through the key battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio later in the week, capping his trip with a stop in Kentucky.