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CLINTON AND DOLE FACE OFF OVER WELFARE

Welfare reform once was a trademark issue for President Clinton, but he let it lapse. Now he's in a political duel to reclaim his standing on a topic Sen. Bob Dole says he and the Republicans will handle, and better.

The president and his top GOP rival matched proposals, along with some pre-campaign sniping, in separate appearances before the National Governors Association on Monday.And while Clinton said Dole's welfare ideas, due for Senate debate at the end of the week, offered hope for bipartisan accord, neither budged on basic differences. The president described the issue as a wedge, and so it is.

While the governors are more concerned about the high cost of Medicaid and the coming GOP cuts in that program, they know the welfare debate commands more widespread attention. Gov. Mike Leavitt of Utah, chairman of the Republican governors, called it a symbol of the debate between conservatives and liberals.

Regardless of party, governors invariably argue for flexibility to run their own programs with fewer federal rules and intrusions. On welfare, though, the Democrats generally favor national guidelines that would keep social safety nets in place and prevent states from simply slashing their programs and using the money elsewhere.

Dole, R-Kan., urged the Republican model, freer rein for the states with Washington sending them block grants, with almost no strings, to run their own welfare programs. Clinton offered states more leeway with swift, virtually automatic waivers from federal rules when they seek steps such as work requirements and welfare time limits.

"I am convinced that, almost more than any other issue in American life, this welfare issue sort of stands as a symbol of what divides us," the president told the governors, whose response proved the point.

Dole's plan has broad support among the 30 Republican governors, 11 of whom are publicly backing him for the GOP nomination to challenge Clinton next year. Dole said that on welfare he was speaking as Senate majority leader, not as a 1996 presidential candidate. The lines blur. Indeed, one of his principal rivals, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, weighed in from Washington with a denunciation of the Dole plan as token reform to "bail out the old welfare system."

Among the Democratic governors, the consensus favors welfare reform with safety net provisions so states couldn't simply take the money and cut the programs.

Dole told the governors that Clinton had said "giving you control will incite a race to the bottom," and said they ought to find out which states the president believes cannot be trusted.

When Clinton's turn came, he said it again, an odd repetition given his audience. "And I do believe honestly that there is a danger that some states will get involved in a race to the bottom," he said. He said that's not, "as some have implied, because I don't have confidence in you," but because the budget pressure could be irresistible in a future recession.

"I felt insulted at his suggestion that governors couldn't stand the pressure and take care of children," Republican Gov. Jim Edgar of Illinois said. "His attitude is Washington knows what's best."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Decrepit Dole? No way

Bob Dole promises not to use his robust health as an issue against a younger President Clinton in the 1996 presidential campaign.

"My cholesterol is lower than Clinton's, and my weight's lower than Clinton's, and my blood pressure," the 72-year-old Senate majority leader joked to the National Governor's Association on Monday. "I'm not going to make health an issue in 1996, no."

Addressing the same group a few hours later, the president took mock offense at Dole's remark - but didn't dispute his statistics. However, he said he stacks up better than Dole by one health measure.

"My standing pulse rate is much lower than Senator Dole's. But that's really not his fault. I don't have to deal with Phil Gramm every day."