SAN ANTONIO Lone Star flag at his back and black cowboy boots on his feet, Al Gore stirred the Texas budget tempest on his rival's home turf Thursday, accusing Gov. George W. Bush of favoring oil companies and special interests with a $1.7 billion tax cut at the expense of the state's children.
Bush retorted from Austin that Texas "doesn't need the vice president" to tell it how to spend its money.
The vice president acknowledged Bush's popularity here. But he said the Republican presidential contender has badly misplaced his priorities.
"This is a wonderful state but I think it should be -- and I think most people agree -- it should be a state where it's just as easy to raise a child as it is to set up an oil rig," Gore said.
"But here are the facts: Texas now ranks No. 1 in industrial pollution. It's No. 2 for child poverty. It's No. 3 for deaths from asthma."
The Democrat paid glancing tribute to the two-term Republican governor's political strengths at home and his "warm and engaging personality." But, Gore added, the presidency "is more than just a popularity contest."
The day played out like a long-distance duel.
Two hours after Gore's broadside, Bush said at the Governor's Mansion in Austin, 100 miles away, that Texas "doesn't need the vice president to teach it about balanced budgets."
Bush said he had cut taxes in a "responsible way" and still managed to create a $1.4 billion surplus. "For Vice President Gore to claim otherwise for his own political purposes is a travesty. He should be ashamed," the governor said.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer added that money from the state's surplus had been used for $3,000 raises for teachers statewide and to eliminate the sales tax on over-the-counter medicines, in addition to the tax cuts Gore cites.
Coincident with Gore's three-hour visit, Republican comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander upped her estimate of the state budget surplus to the $1.4 billion that Bush cited, from $1.1 billion. About half will be needed to cover at least $610 million in recently disclosed cost overruns this year in Medicaid and the prison program.
"My message to Al Gore is there is no deficit in Texas. The Texas economy is strong," she said, offering Gore a briefing on the numbers.
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane declined. "She's no Alan Greenspan; she's a Republican partisan," Lehane said, adding that Gore preferred to talk to "real families in this state who have been impacted by (Bush's) wrong-headed decisions."