The Fox visit: Gore and Bush offer praise mixed with reservations

WASHINGTON - Mexican President-elect Vicente Fox drew praise from Al Gore and George W. Bush on Thursday, but the two presidential aspirants' neighborliness was mixed with reservations - especially from Bush - about Fox's proposal to eventually open the U.S.-Mexican border.

On a visit rife with political overtones both north and south of the border, Fox spent an hour with Gore strolling the grounds of the vice president's official residence, then went to the White House for an Oval Office meeting with President Clinton. He will meet with Bush on Friday in Texas.

Gore's foreign policy team had touted the meeting with Fox as an example of his extensive contacts with foreign leaders.

For Bush, the Fox meeting underscores the one area where the Republican candidate has significant foreign relations experience, in dealing as Texas governor with Mexico.

For Fox, bringing suggestions for improving U.S.-Mexican ties even before he takes office - rather than simply waiting to react to U.S. overtures - establishes him as a forward-looking leader. He already has visited other Latin American countries and plans a trip to Europe before taking office.

''Mexico's commitment to the future has changed, and our responsibility is to take all this positive energy to go forth,'' Fox told reporters at the National Press Club.

Fox described his meetings with Clinton and Gore and also with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as ''extremely positive, extremely friendly and extremely useful.''

A towering man who has towered over Mexican politics since his election on July 2, Fox received a warm welcome in Washington.

During his opposition presidential campaign, the Fox camp accused both Gore and Bush of snubbing his overtures for meetings while agreeing to see representatives of his ruling party opponent.

Aides to Fox said the alleged snub prompted the president-elect not to take congratulatory phone calls from Gore and Bush after the July 2 election until after each had tried to reach him several times. Aides to Gore and Bush denied at the time any intention to snub Fox.

Gore praised Fox on Thursday as a man with ''big ideas, very large ideas.'' Bush, traveling from Austin to New Orleans, saw him as ''an interesting man, a big strong man, a charismatic fellow.'' He predicted a ''good long-term relationship'' with Fox should Bush prevail in November.

But Bush was less kind in his assessment of Fox's proposal for the eventual opening of the U.S.-Mexican border.

''I don't think he's fully explained open borders,'' Bush said. ''As you know, I believe we ought to enforce our borders.'' He said he will reinforce that point in a speech on Friday before his meeting with Fox.

He added that the Mexican leader has been sending mixed signals on the issue.

From the Democratic side, reservations about Fox's plan also were voiced but in less abrasive terms.

Leon Fuerth, Gore's national security adviser, said Gore during his meeting with Fox found aspects of Fox's open border proposals to be ''very problematic'' for the United States. Gore listened respectfully to Fox's ideas and pointed out that implementation would take 25 to 30 years, Fuerth said.

National Security adviser Sandy Berger made a similar point, noting that Fox has never intended his proposal to be implemented over the short term. Rather, Berger said, Fox sees that as a goal that could be implemented once wage levels between the two countries are more comparable - 20 or 30 years from now.

Over lunch, Albright told Fox, according to a senior official, that the United States has the most generous immigration policy in the world. At the same time, she said, the nation must protect its borders.

After his meeting with Gore, Fox went to the White House, where he was received warmly by Clinton.

Clinton said it was a ''great honor'' to meet with Fox, adding that his election was a ''truly historic affirmation of democracy'' in Mexico. Fox, who will be sworn in on Dec. 1, ended 71 years of Institutional Revolutionary Party rule with his victory.

Fox thanked Clinton for the support he offered at the time of the financial crisis that struck Mexico five years ago.

''When we were in crisis, we always got and saw the hand of a friend,'' Fox said.

At his news conference, Fox reiterated his opposition to the annual process whereby the United States evaluates the counterdrug performance of Mexico and other countries where narcotrafficking is a problem. Uncooperative countries can face economic sanctions.

Fox said he favors replacing this ''unilateral'' U.S. approach with a multilateral strategy that, he said, would lead to enhanced cooperation.


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