Bush defends tax plan with 'human face'

NEW ORLEANS - George W. Bush recruited a photogenic Louisiana family to put ''a face'' on his $1.3 trillion tax-cut plan Thursday and lobbed fresh criticism at Democrat Al Gore's rival $500 billion proposal.

''I welcome this tax debate. I hope we debate taxes between now and Election Day,'' the Republican Texas governor said as he sought to counter Democratic allegations that his plan would mainly help the wealthy.

Bush has suggested that the failure of his 10-year plan to gain wider acceptance so far is due to lack of understanding. And he said on his campaign plane on the way here from Texas, ''Maybe I didn't explain what I was trying to explain very well. ... Let me start over.''

This time his campaign came armed with more than fact sheets. At the airport in New Orleans, Bush was greeted by the Bechac family, from nearby Mandeville, La.

He contended the middle-income family would get a 77 percent tax break - $1,600 - under his plan but nothing under Gore's.

''I want to put a face on the current tax relief package,'' Bush said with the Bechacs at his side holding their daughters, Camille, 1, and Meredith, 4, both in pink dresses.

Andrew Bechac, a high school football coach and teacher, said he earns about $40,000 a year. The family, which owns its own house and itemizes deductions, would reduce its tax bill from $2,075 to $475 under Bush's plan, the campaign said.

Bechac, 33, told reporters, ''We all want tax relief. We need this tax plan.'' He added that, if he could get a $1,600 tax break, he'd put it in ''an educational trust fund for my children.'' Bechac said he was active in local Republican politics.

Later, Bush told a GOP fund-raising luncheon, ''I ask you, I ask America, to look at the facts in these tax plans. I think Mr. Bechac, who's working hard for his family, ought to have more money so he gets to make the decisions for his family rather than the federal government''

Gore's $500 billion plan is aimed generally at the middle class, but is targeted to provide reductions for specific programs and activities. Bush's reduction would apply to all tax rates, from the top to the bottom.

Families like the Bechacs wouldn't necessarily come up empty with Gore. They could send their 4-year-old to preschool at little if any cost under his plan to make preschool affordable for all families.

As well, a family making Bechac's salary and investing $1,000 a year for retirement would get a $1,000 matching tax credit and a $150 tax deduction, according to Gore's tax proposals. The family also could get new tax breaks to save for college.

In all, Doug Hattaway, a Gore campaign spokesman, suggested that the Bechac family could get up to $2,525 in tax relief if it took full advantage of such Gore-plan benefits.

Gore himself dismissed the Bush plan as ''a giant tax cut for the wealthy'' during a campaign speech at the University of Maryland.

Aides at that event distributed a paper comparing the effect of the two candidates' plans on a married couple earning $60,000 with a child in college. The family would save $1,025 under the Democratic plan compared with $600 under Bush's plan, contended spokesman Chris Lehane.

Bush was beginning a two-day campaign trip to Louisiana and Florida.

On Friday, he will speak in Miami on improving trade relations with Latin America and will meet privately later in Dallas with Mexican President-elect Vicente Fox.

On Thursday, during a visit to Dillard University in New Orleans, Bush promoted a plan to spend $437 million over five years to help historically black colleges and universities.

He also proposed $166 million over five years to help institutions of higher learning that have Hispanic enrollments of 25 percent or greater.

As for the campaign as Labor Day nears, Bush told the GOP luncheon in New Orleans, ''I feel upbeat and my energy level is strong.''

Earlier, he told reporters he planned to ''just keep my message out there'' on taxes and other issues. ''People are beginning to listen and I like my chances. I've never been more upbeat about a campaign in my life.''

He said he agreed with a decision on Wednesday to drop plans to air a Republican Party TV ad questioning Gore's veracity and featuring an old videotape of the vice president. ''Somebody showed me the ad a couple days ago. I didn't think it was an appropriate ad,'' he said.


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