Portland, Maine Gov. George W. Bush exudes a quiet confidence these days that contrasts sharply with recent media portrayals of him as off-message and stumbling. In a lengthy interview, Bush told me he will soon ratchet up the debate with Vice President Al Gore on several major issues. Bush said he's going to press his point that the military is in serious need of repair. In a scheduled return visit to the American Legion, he plans to invite retired military people to talk about the problems. Bush said, "The fact is, the military can't meet its recruiting goals, parts for machinery are lacking, training of Air Force pilots is behind, morale is low in some instances. Yes, we still have the greatest fighting force in the world, but at this rate it won't be in two, maybe four years."
Bush said Gore can deny there's a problem, "but the facts are the Army is short of people, we've had Navy maneuvers that have to turn around for lack of fuel, and we're overextended around the world." Bush would consult with European nations to see if they will pick up more of the troop burden in the Balkans. He hinted he would like to bring many American forces home.
Bush stated that his position on helping needy seniors with their prescription-drug costs, which he promised to detail shortly, is mostly about choice, not top-down, one-size-fits-all government mandates. The Gore plan is a step closer to enacting Hillary Rodham Clinton's failed government takeover of health care. It would cost an estimated $310 billion for starters and impose a new entitlement program on top of Medicare, which is losing the struggle to stay solvent.
Saying that Gore sounded "less than presidential"when he challenged Bush to "put up or shut up" on prescription drugs, Bush fired back, "Clinton-Gore haven't done anything about prescription drugs. Their rhetoric today sounds just like 1992. (Gore) is talking about middle-class tax cuts, just as Clinton did in 1992, but Clinton gave everyone a retroactive tax increase. They've been in charge these last eight years. Why didn't they do then what Gore proposes to do now?"
Bush should endorse the prescription-drug bill sponsored in the Senate by Bob Smith of New Hampshire and Wayne Allard of Colorado, both Republicans. It would combine parts A and B deductibles into one lower deductible of $675, which would apply to hospital costs, doctor visits and prescription drugs. Medicare would cover 50 percent of prescription drugs once the deductible is reached, up to $5,000. Seniors would also save $550 a year on their current Medigap policy premium. Allard and Smith say it wouldn't cost the taxpayers anything extra. Poll testing has shown the Smith-Allard plan wins strong approval over the Gore spending prescription.
On debates, Bush said his negotiators have just begun to bargain with Gore's representatives. He prefers three different formats "and not those where the participants are walking around." People who think he's afraid to take on Gore may be in for a surprise. Bush's confidence in himself and his issues is growing.
While Bush praised Sen. Joseph Lieberman as a "good man," he thinks that Lieberman's increasing use of religious language (which Bush has also used, but in response to questions) "can get to be too much."
In Portland, Bush led a brief discussion on education with Maine and Texas school officials in which he talked up his education plan for required testing, state performance standards and vouchers so parents can choose where to send kids if they're trapped in consistently failing public schools. He said Gore's education plan is a "status quo" proposal of no annual tests and more money for public schools with no incentive for substandard schools to improve.
About President Clinton's morals, Bush would only say, "I think a lot of Americans are tired (of the last eight years) and want someone who will honor the office again."
The Bush people believe their poll numbers, which were high before the Democratic National Convention, will start edging back up in the next week or two. That confidence has spread to staff members, one of whom brought her son along on the trip to continue his "home schooling."
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Los Angeles Times Syndicate.