Bush acknowledges GOP discontent, promises changes in campaign

DAYTON, Ohio - Pelted with uninvited advice from worried Republicans, George W. Bush promised Thursday to retool his White House campaign, including by interacting more with ''real people.''

It came as his team searched for ways to stem an advance that has allowed Democrat Al Gore to erase Bush's once-formidable lead and even pull ahead in some polls. ''I am the underdog,'' Bush said, as Republican leaders urged him to go on the offensive, stop talking about campaign tactics and polish the way he presents issues to the public.

''There's not a single one of us that's not discouraged,'' said Tom Slade, a former Florida legislator and state GOP chairman. ''We had a 15, 20 point lead. We were just whistling down the street, and now we're whistling past the graveyard.''

Bush at first bristled over the advice, calling his Republican critics few in number, ''nervous,'' and ''ready to jump out of the foxhole before the first shell is fired.''

''That's Washington. I'm used to that kind of politics out of Washington,'' he said.

But then he conceded that some changes were in order - and others already under way. ''We're listening,'' Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said. ''We know it is well-intentioned. Republicans want to win.''

Bush said he would do more town hall meetings - a format used heavily by Gore to his advantage, but rarely used by the GOP candidate. He also signaled new flexibility on presidential debates. While saying he still preferred his own schedule, he no longer appeared to be insisting upon it.

''It'll be worked out. I want there to be debates. The more who watch the better,'' he told reporters under the wing of his campaign plane in Detroit.

A senior Bush strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the campaign miscalculated by assuming Gore would be condemned for reneging on his pledge to debate ''anywhere, anytime.'' Instead, Bush was accused of ducking debates by proposing NBC and CNN sessions and accepting only one of three proposed matchups by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

The Texas governor also suggested he might spend less time talking on camera to reporters on his airplane and more in front of audiences. ''When I come back on the airplane and speak to you, people don't get a sense of my ability to relate to people,'' he told reporters.

Advice by senior Republicans on stopping Gore's rise varied.

Michigan Gov. John Engler said Bush is faring well in his state, where polls show the race tied, but he wants the Texan to avoid looking like he is reacting to Gore.

''Get on the offensive. Don't be defensive,'' Engler said, pointing with pleasure to an ongoing series of GOP ads that question Gore's character.

A number of Republicans, including Bush's own advisers, said he needs to stop talking about the process of politics. He has broken the rule of thumb by discussing debates and again Thursday by telling reporters he would retool his campaign.

He should focus instead on tax cuts, education, Medicare, Social Security and other campaign issues, said Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.

''He sells (himself) by being much more aggressive about his agenda,'' Thompson said.

Some changes have already been made to try to simplify Bush's call for a $1.3 trillion tax cut.

For the past week, at each new Bush stop, a ''tax family'' is paraded out to his plane - a local middle-class family who would benefit more under Bush's tax plan than under Gore's.

And, in the past few days, Bush has been trying to counter Democratic charges that his $1.3 trillion tax cut would eat up all the surplus and jeopardize Social Security. He holds up four dollar bills - representing the projected $4 billion-plus surplus over 10 years - then puts two bills aside, or $2 trillion, to help shore up Social Security, then a third bill for spending increases. That leaves a single bill - roughly representing the cost of his tax cut - and gives it to a member of the audience.

North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer hasn't seen Bush use the dollar-bill analogy, but said something like that needs to be done.

''The one thing that needs some clarity is the tax break,'' said the chairman of the Republican Governors Association.

Republicans have grown restless in the face of Bush's poll numbers.

''Everybody got cocky'' after Bush's comfortable lead over Gore through most of the summer and a triumphant GOP convention, conceded veteran GOP operative Charles Black, a Bush campaign adviser.

Now the reality of a close race is sinking in, though Black said he thinks there's still plenty of time for Bush to regain lost ground.

''When I saw them last week, they were prepared to weather a storm,'' said Tom Rath, a Bush adviser in New Hampshire. ''I think the storm might have been a little rougher than they thought it would be.''

Bush campaigned on Thursday with retired Gen. Colin Powell in a Detroit suburb and in Dayton. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, another Gulf War figure during the Bush administration, joined them for the Ohio event.

Bush campaign aides suggested that the popular Powell, widely expected to be offered the job of secretary of state in a Bush administration, might play a more active role in the campaign.


EDITORS: Political Writer Ron Fournier contributed from Washington.


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