Playing To Their Strengths

Al Gore and George W. Bush played to their respective strengths Monday, focusing on issues at the top of voters’ lists of concerns: health care and education.

Gore kicked off a week’s worth of stumping on health care in front of an audience of Tallahassee, Florida, retirees while Bush, trying to neutralize criticism that he has no plan for creating a Medicare prescription drug benefit, shifted the focus to one of his favorite topics, education.

The Gore campaign has been all over Bush for not providing details on how he would help seniors get access to prescription drugs though Medicare. Sunday, network TV interviewers turned up the heat on Bush’s running mate Dick Cheney, who could only say, “Well, the specifics are being worked on right now."

The Gore-Lieberman Web site now bears the headline “Improving Health Care,” with links to information on Gore’s proposal, his congressional and vice presidential record on the issue, and a big city newspaper’s editorial endorsing his plan over Bush’s.

Dressed in a formal blue suit but speaking in a just-folks manner, Gore was on his game in Tallahassee, connecting with seniors who told him stories of high drug prices and hard choices.

Under a banner emblazoned with the words, “Fighting for Florida’s Families,” Gore called on audience members, reading their names from index cards.

A few of the pre-screened questioners didn’t deliver exactly what Gore cued them for, but he rolled with it, always finding something in his agenda to respond to their situation.

In a gesture of near Clintonian empathy, Gore embraced a 77 year-old man whose voice broke telling a heartbreaking tale of caring for his disabled adult son at home. Perhaps intuiting that it was better to empathize than to give the man an earful of policy details, Gore just said, “We want to help you.”

Gore is proposing spending $250 billion of the anticipated federal budget surplus over ten years to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. He claims “the big drug companies support” the Bush approach, which failed in a state-level experiment in Nevada.

A CBS News poll conducted the weekend after the Democratic National Convention found respondents think the Democrats are more capable of handling the health care issue.

AARP Legislative Director John Rother said many “mainstream” analysts are “skeptical” that Bush can pay for a prescription drug plan within his broader economic plan because once Social Security, Medicare and tax cuts are accounted for, “there’s no money left for anything else.”

“There are three questions everyone should ask,” says Rother. “The first one is affordability: What does it cost and what will it pay out? The second question is availability: Will it only be through HMOs in certain part of the country, or is there a way to get a benefit to everyone regardless of where they are? And the third question goes back to affordability: Will the candidate commit to allocating a sufficient amount out of the federal surplus over the next 10 years?”

Meanwhile in Austin, Bush launched a new offensive on education Monday, accusing his Democratic of having presided over "a national tragedy" in U.S. schools.

He charged the vice president with having nothing to offer teachers, parents and students except "the status quo."

"Seven years in office and my opponent presides over a national tragedy," Bush said. "Seventy percent of fourth graders in our highest poverty schools still cannot read and he's offered little to do anything about it."

Bush also cited a National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) study released last week which showed the achievement gap between rich and poor, minority and non-minority students had stagnated or gotten worse, calling it "an indictment of the status quo and of the last seven years of neglect for our public schools."

Bush vowed that education, more traditionally an issue embraced by the Democrats, would be his first priority as president. He will take his message on a four-day, five-state road trip beginning Tuesday in Maine and New Hampshire. The Bush campaign promised to release more details on the Bush education plan on Tuesday, September 5.