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Wonkamania Runs Wild

In the waning hours of his four-week "Progress & Prosperity" tour, Vice President Al Gore unveiled a new gimmick at a swing state campaign stop designed to highlight the differences between his Medicare plan and George W. Bush's.

Perhaps because his campaign has been flummoxed by Gore's apparent inability to "connect" with people, the Veep played to his strength, making a professorial presentation complete with color charts and graphs that showed off his command of the sometimes mind-numbing details of Medicare budgeting.

Gore - who has a plan to infuse the Medicare Trust Fund with $75 billion - warned a gray-haired audience of elders in Niles, Ill., that Bush would not spend "one dime of surplus" to extend the solvency of Medicare past its current go-broke date around 2025.

In addition to extending Medicare's solvency, Gore's plan would spend hundreds of surplus billions to create a prescription drug benefit for seniors; and put Medicare's tax revenues in a "lockbox" to insure that money would be used first for meeting Medicare's obligations.

Pointing to a colored column signifying Bush's economic plan that loomed over a shorter one representing the federal surplus, Gore warned that Bush would fritter away the federal surplus on a tax cut for the rich and new spending on defense. "If you add up what he has already proposed in his budget and don't even add on the Star Wars costs" Gore said, referring to Bush's missile defense plan, "it completely swamps" the surplus.

Bush has criticized Gore for rejecting the reforms recommended by a bipartisan Medicare commission. So, turning to another easel, Gore took his audience through a list of panel recommendations, which Bush says are a good starting point for Medicare reform, and debunked them one at a time.

"I think you have a right to know," Gore told the seniors, that Bush supports "forc[ing] Medicare recipients into HMOs"; limiting prescription drug benefits to seniors with annual incomes below $11,000; and raising the eligibility age for Medicare.

Gore's campaign itinerary has been tightly focused this week on health care: Monday it was his prescription drug plan at a Missouri seniors center; Wednesday it was insurance coverage for children before an audience of teachers in Philadelphia; and Thursday, Medicare at a seniors center in suburban Illinois. He'll end the week focusing on women's health at another seniors center in Pennsylvania.

On Thursday, Gore continued a recently ramped-up attack on the pharmaceutical companies. He accused them of "price-gouging" and repeated a favorite stump anecdote about his arthritic Labrador retriever to demonstrate that the same prescription drug can sometimes be had cheaper from a veterinarian than from a medical doctor.

Gore's systematic presentation held his audience. When Gore asked the rhetorical question "Guess who gets charged the highest price [for prescription drugs]?"the attentive crowd shouted "SENIORS!" in reply.

Women in the audience appeared charmed by Gore's stories of his parents' courtship in an "all-night coffee shop" and his father's first job in a Tennessee community known as "Booz ... after a local livelihood."

"Professor" Gore didn't need props to prove he's the candidate with the best command of the details. One audience member asked Gore if he'd correct inequities in the Social Security system. Gore launched into a lengthy discursive answer that outlined the legislative history of the bill's flaw. After almost three minutes, Gore interrupted himself to ask the questioner, "See what I'm sayin'?"

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