NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.- George W. Bush on Thursday criticized rival Al Gore over what he called misuse of the White House to secure campaign contributions in 1995. The Texas governor said voters should elect a new administration to ''restore honor and dignity'' to the Oval Office.
The Justice Department says Gore was asked to make a fund-raising phone call in 1995 to a Texas trial lawyer involved in tobacco industry litigation. Gore's alleged call cleared the way for the lawyer to give $790,000 to the Democratic Party after President Clinton vetoed limits on liability lawsuits.
A Gore aide said the vice president never made the phone call. But Bush, addressing a group of National Guard members, seized on the issue.
''Just today, there are new revelations about the potential misuse of the White House for fund-raising purposes - new evidence that my opponent may have crossed a serious line: solicitation of campaign contributions linked to a presidential veto,'' Bush said. ''The appearance is really disturbing. Americans are tired of investigations and scandals. The best way to get rid of them is to elect a new president who will restore honor and dignity to The White House.''
Bush also criticized the Clinton administration for running down the military, telling the guardsmen, ''For the last eight years, we have struggled to hold our military together. We have not prepared it for the future.'' He promised to invest more money in soldiers and technology.
The Texas governor also plans to visit schools, take in a county fair and hobnob with donors during a two-and-a-half-day visit to California - his 15th in a year and the third since the GOP national convention last month.
He faces an uphill battle to beat Gore, with most state polls showing Bush with a double-digit deficit against Gore. Bush has pledged not to give up on California like his father, President Bush, did eight years ago.
But he tacitly acknowledged his underdog status. ''I'm confident that we can carry California. I know that goes against conventional wisdom,'' he said at a fund-raiser in Irvine, Calif.
Bush's recipe for wooing Californians combines a focus on education - an important issue for many voters - and Democratic-sounding appeals to the state's ethnic groups.
He started right in on Wednesday, rushing from the airport in Long Beach to an Asian neighborhood for a rally.
''Part of making sure we win in California is to understand the wonderful fabric of this state,'' Bush said. ''This is a state of many faces and many cultures. I say we welcome all cultures.''
In stops in Orange County and San Diego, Bush planned to talk about his education plan to hold schools more accountable for teaching kids the basics.
Bush favors using standardized state-created tests to measure whether schools are doing a good job. Under his proposal, schools that fail to make the grade would lose a portion of their federal funding and states that improve test scores would be rewarded. Parents of kids in failing schools could get $1,500 to pay for private schools or tutors.
Bush says he wants to give local educators more control over the performance of schools by letting them set the testing standards.
''I do not want to be the federal superintendent of schools,'' Bush said Wednesday, repeating a line he uses everywhere he goes. ''I believe in local control of schools.''
The issue is especially potent in California, where voters will decide in November whether to approve a ballot initiative that would provide vouchers for kids to attend private schools.
At a Santa Ana high school, Bush fielded questions from students on subjects ranging from college scholarships to sex education. Bush said he thinks ''the best sex education takes place at home,'' adding that he favors abstinence education.
Senior Tina Nguyen, 17, pressed him: ''Are you against sex?''
''I didn't say that,'' Bush responded, a look of irritation crossing his face. He said he believes sex education should include abstinence, but that parents are the best teachers on that subject.
Afterward, Nguyen, who said she is a teen advocate for Planned Parenthood, said she thought Bush was ''ruffled'' by her question.
''I believe he was saying that sex was wrong,'' she said. ''Abstinence is great, but what about teens who don't practice abstinence?''