Dearborn, Mich. Ignoring the controversy over his 1976 arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol, Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush campaigned Saturday on a theme of personal behavior, calling on public officials to serve as role models for children.
Vice President Gore, meanwhile, continued to ridicule Bush for mistakenly stating that Social Security is not a federal program and for favoring a tax cut plan that benefits the wealthy more than America's working families.
The Republican ticket prefers a "a dog-eat-dog, every person for himself mentality," Gore said. "That's fine for the very wealthy, but does not work very well always for those who are struggling to get by."
With just two full days of campaigning left, Bush and Gore appear headed for the tightest finish in the Electoral College since 1976 and the closest popular vote margin since 1968, according to an intensive Washington Post canvass of political insiders in all 50 states and analysis of public and private polls.
High on emotion
The neck-and-neck contest is leading to increasingly emotional volleys of charge and countercharge delivered in speeches, television commercials and telephone calls.
Neither Gore nor Bush, campaigning vigorously to pull ahead on the final weekend of their hard-fought race, directly mentioned the flap stirred up Thursday by news that the Texas governor had been convicted 24 years ago of driving under the influence of alcohol.
At a time when his personal character is under renewed scrutiny because of the incident, Bush spent much of Saturday talking about values and about the personal behavior of all Americans. Though his campaign would like to put the issue behind it, reporters' assertions Friday that Bush in recent years said his last arrest came long before 1976 gave the incident renewed currency.
At large rallies in the crucial swing states of Pennsylvania and Michigan, Bush pressed for a crackdown on drugs and pornography. And, in what appeared to be an allusion to President Clinton's personal foibles, he said a president should "set an example for moms and dads of America."
Thursday night, Bush confirmed news reports that he had been arrested in 1976, at the age of 30, for driving under the influence of alcohol. He long has said he quit drinking when he turned 40. Bush said Thursday that he did not reveal the arrest publicly before because he wanted to set a good example for his twin daughters, who are 18.
The candidate returned Saturday to one of his central campaign themes a pledge to restore honesty and integrity to the Oval Office.
"Those of us in public life can stand side-by-side with parents by promoting values as to how we live our lives," he told a rally here. Later, in suburban Philadelphia, he emphasized the point: "I understand that government can stand on the side of parents. But so can the president of the United States, by serving as a positive example."
Bush called for vigorous prosecution of pornography laws and for Internet filters in public places to "keep filth out of the hands of our children." He said America should "fight drugs hard." And he called for a "family hour" on daily television.
Gore, campaigning in West Virginia, a fiercely competitive state, intensified his attack on Bush's verbal blunder regarding Social Security.
On Thursday, while speaking of his proposal to let workers invest part of their Social Security taxes in stocks, Bush said: "This frightens some in Washington because they want the federal government controlling Social Security, like it's some kind of federal program."
Social Security is a federal program.
The Bush campaign has acknowledged that the governor misspoke. But Gore, whose campaign already turned the gaffe into a commercial, said Bush's comment illustrated his attitude toward government programs.
"It wasn't a slip of the tongue," Gore told an airport rally in Huntington. "It was an expression of ingrained hostility to our ability as Americans to work together to better ourselves through instruments of self-government that our founders wrote into the Constitution."
Both candidates are spending the last few days of the campaign in states that could swing either way and determine the outcome of the election. Bush spent Saturday in Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Jersey, while Gore campaigned in his home state of Tennessee as well as West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Gore called in Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia institution whose 42 years in the Senate is the second longest in its history, to help him out. Gore aides considered his appearance a boost because Byrd rarely campaigns for other politicians.
"Politicians and political candidates are coming to our West Virginia hills," Byrd said. "We are being wooed like the only daughter of a dying billionaire. When the election battle is over and the cannons cease, how many of these politicians will be back? ... I am for Al Gore, lock, stock and barrel."
If Bush carries all the states now safely in his column or leaning to him, which add up to 251 electoral votes, he could win the White House simply by carrying Florida. Gore, whose secure or likely base adds up to 215 electoral votes, would need a combination such as Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and one other small state to win.
Gore's task is complicated by the candidacy of Green Party nominee Ralph Nader, who could siphon off enough votes in states such as Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin and Minnesota to tip them to Bush.
Bush has built his narrow advantage in the electoral map by securing much of the traditional GOP base in the South, the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains and by making inroads in several states that have supported the Democrats in recent elections.
But Bush's inability to nail down Florida's 25 electoral votes leaves a sizeable opening for Gore to piece together enough electoral votes to seize the White House and deny Bush the chance to avenge the loss of his father to President Clinton eight years ago.
At least five other states, including Michigan with 18 electoral votes and Wisconsin with 11, remain true toss-ups, and the outlook could be changed by the massive voter turnout operations under way across the country.
National polls show Bush with a narrow lead, but they are not reliable indicators of the Electoral College battle. The latest Washington Post tracking poll conducted Wednesday through Friday shows Bush with 48 percent, Gore 46 percent, Ralph Nader with 3 percent and Reform Party nominee Patrick Buchanan with 1 percent.
Interviews with likely voters Friday showed vast indifference to the report that Bush was arrested 24 years ago for driving under the influence of alcohol, with just one in six voters saying the arrest is relevant to the presidential race and far fewer indicating that it might affect their vote.