WASHINGTON - As campaign drama goes, the prescription drug issue offers plenty: allegations of dishonesty, questions of intelligence, volleys of TV ads, heart-tugging anecdotes of grandmothers unable to pay for arthritis medicine.
Democrat Al Gore, always at his best in a brawl, is devoting all this week - plus as much as $5 million in new Democratic Party TV ads - to trying to dismember Republican George W. Bush's promise to help senior citizens with their drug bills.
''A nonexistent plan,'' Gore called it.
After a week on the defensive over his tax-cut plan, Bush on Monday was determined not to lose his back-to-school focus on education reform. But he did promise to lay out a detailed drug plan next Tuesday, in Pennsylvania.
He left it to his aides and the Republican National Committee to ensure that, until then, Gore does not have the stage to himself on this issue - a potentially decisive one for senior citizens who vote in large numbers.
The candidate's reluctance to go head to head has some Republican strategists worried. Already, polls give Gore a 2-to-1 advantage when voters are asked which candidate would do a better job dealing with health care and prescription drug prices.
GOP pollster Frank Luntz said Bush has time to fight back.
''It's a natural Democratic advantage that Bush can easily blunt if he talks about it,'' Luntz said. ''Gore's hit the right issue but he's approaching it the wrong way. George Bush is approaching it correctly but he hasn't said enough.''
Congress, back in session next week, is unlikely to help either side.
Despite repeated attempts by Chairman William Roth, R-Del., who is up for re-election, the Senate Finance Committee has been unable to reach consensus on a drug bill.
John Rother, policy director of AARP, said drug costs are the leading concern of at least half of the 12 million senior citizens who belong to his group.
''Gore has the advantage of having a plan. You can criticize the plan; it's not all that generous, frankly, and it's also something that they've not gotten Congress to support yet. But it's a plan and so far, compared to other plans, it's a pretty strong plan,'' Rother said.
GOP voter research has found that the most effective way to neutralize Gore's advantage on the issue is to label his $253 billion, 10-year proposal for a Medicare prescription drug benefit a Washington-based, bureaucratic solution. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer used the language Newt Gingrich used to torpedo Hillary Rodham Clinton's 1993 health overhaul.
A ''nationalized, catch-all, government-run, one-size-fits-all plan,'' Fleischer said. ''The more people get to know about Al Gore's plan the more it will look like Hillary-care.''
Ironically, Gore used a similar scare tactic to bury Democratic primary rival Bill Bradley and his proposal for universal health insurance.
Fleischer said Bush's alternative plan, emphasizing consumer choice, would resemble one introduced in May by Sens. John Breaux, D-La., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn.: a sliding scale of government subsidies for retirees choosing drug coverage, already provided by HMOs that participate in Medicare.
''The governor on Tuesday will make clear exactly which of those levels he supports and how he'll do it,'' Fleischer promised.
Bush aired last week a TV ad promising affordable drugs. But running mate Dick Cheney admitted on Sunday that the specifics had yet to be worked out.
Gore, seeing Bush on the run, offered interviews to The New York Times and ABC's ''Good Morning America'' in which he questioned Bush's credibility - a turnabout for Gore, whose truthfulness is under constant scrutiny by Bush.
''I'm waiting for the plan,'' Gore told The Times. ''The ad says there's a plan. Where's the plan?''
This is an issue Gore also sees as ripe for reinforcing notions that he is more experienced and knowledgeable than Bush.
The vice president told senior citizens on Monday, ''You deserve a detailed, adult discussion of these issues'' - suggesting Bush was not capable of providing the same.
He campaigned in Tallahassee, Fla., with 82-year-old Myrtle Jennings, who, as Gore knelt beside her, said she skips her arthritis pain medication in order to afford heart and blood-pressure drugs.
The stop coincided with a Democratic National Committee ad accusing Bush of ''siding with the big drug companies.''
At the Bush campaign's behest, Florida GOP Sen. Connie Mack responded, ''Mr. Gore had eight years to prove that easing the burden of prescription drug costs was a priority.'' And the RNC fired off a TV commercial saying Gore's plan ''lets Washington bureaucrats interfere'' with medicine.
One subject Gore appears to have shut down for now involves campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry.
Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman took $84,550 from pharmaceutical companies for his 2000 re-election effort before joining Gore's presidential ticket.
EDITOR'S NOTE - Sandra Sobieraj covers the Gore campaign for The Associated Press.