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Which George Bush is Gore running against?

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WASHINGTON — The newest twists to Al Gore's stump speech are warnings against the Republican "old guard" and derision for the "kinder, gentler" slogan of a bygone GOP campaign.

Which George Bush is he running against?

There is, of course, this year's Republican presidential contender, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But there's also his dad, former President Bush, who earlier served two terms as Ronald Reagan's vice president.

The elder Bush, defeated for re-election in 1992 by Bill Clinton and Gore, has long been a regular character in Gore's campaign script. Before the vice president turned his primary-season fire on Democratic challenger Bill Bradley last fall, Gore had filled his speeches with warnings against a return "to the Reagan-Bush years" and their attendant budget deficits.

Then, around the time Gore clinched the Democratic nomination in March, he shifted gears to assail "the Bush-Quayle years" — possibly an effort to question Bush's intellectual capacity by associating him with his father's vice president, Dan Quayle.

Typically paired with a reference to those "Bush-Quayle" years was this Gore line: "Does Governor Bush have the understanding of America's problems to be president?"

As Gore has honed his argument against Bush's proposed tax cuts and his ability to steer the national economy without running the budget back into deficits, the image often conjured is that of the elder Bush.

This was Gore on Tuesday night, speaking in Kansas City, Mo., to a small dinner of Democratic National Committee contributors:

"My opponent, astonishingly enough, is proposing the policies of 20 years ago — a set of proposals that were crafted in 1980 and have grown stale — a big tax cut mainly for the wealthy, make government the enemy and then leaven it as was done in 1988 with the 'kinder, gentler' — with a phrase that said I'm going to tell you that I'll try to take the edge off it. We've been there, done that, still paying the bills."

When the elder Bush ran and won against Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988, he uttered the phrase, "I want a kinder, gentler nation," that stuck in the lexicon.

To party donors in Memphis, Tenn., on Monday, Gore said electing the next-generation Bush would "put the old guard back in power with their old ideas."

Gore strategists deny any conscious attempt to shackle father to son, but the effect of Gore's language could be to undercut the younger Bush's claim to an evolved conservatism. It could also stoke murmurs among Bush's detractors that he feels entitled to inherit his father's office.

"I think that it is one possible way of raising doubts about whether George W. Bush is actually a different kind of Republican. In my mind a more direct approach might be more effective," said independent pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.

Kohut also said the elder Bush may have acquired a "statesmanlike image" since he left the White House and any perceived attack on him by Gore could backfire.

President Bush's poll numbers dropped in the last year of his term, but a poll this year suggested the public now views him favorably by almost a 3-1 margin. He and his wife, Barbara, drew admiring crowds on this year's campaign trail.

Bush campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer called Gore's latest tactic typical of an "attack-dog, mean-spirited" method of operation.

But Gore spokesman Chris Lehane said his candidate's only purpose in the new language is to cast Bush's ideas for taxes and the economy as proven failures certain to ring up a federal budget deficit.

The annual deficit peaked at $290 billion in 1992, the last year of the elder Bush's presidency, before moving back toward the black and piling up the projected $2 trillion or more in non-Social Security surplus funds for which Gore hopes to be given some credit.

Gore told the AFL-CIO on Friday that the Republicans say of the current prosperity, "Well the American people deserve the credit for this."

"Well, of course they do," Gore said. "It's their hard work that's done it, but don't you think they were working hard back in 1991?"

Republicans argue that the recovery that led to today's boom actually started under the elder Bush, nearly two years before Clinton took office. And many contend that Reagan started the current good times in 1982 with his tax cuts.