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Rivals blast Bush for omitting middle-class tax break in plan

President Bush came under fire from rivals of both parties Friday for omitting a key middle-class tax break from his economic plan. He refused to respond but accused congressional Democrats of trying to scuttle his plan to help home buyers.

As his rivals campaigned here on the last weekend before the New Hampshire primary, Bush tramped through a Maryland construction site in hard hat and cowboy boots, saying he is taking "shots from all sides" and his critics are "having a field day."

Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Republican challenger Patrick Buchanan both were critical of Bush for omitting a $500 increase in the personal exemption for children from the tax bill he sent to Capitol Hill this week.

"The rich get the gold mine and the middle class gets the shaft," Clinton said. "It's wrong and it's going to ruin the country."

Bush proposed in his State of the Union message to increase the personal income tax exemption. The administration says it plans to send the measure to lawmakers in a second installment of his economic recovery plan later.

Buchanan concentrated his fire on the issue as he campaigned here on the day before Bush's scheduled return to the state for the final weekend before Tuesday's voting.

"In retrospect, Mr. Bush's State of the Union address appears to have been a giant political scam to hoodwink New Hampshire voters into believing George Bush favors tax cuts for working people," said Buchanan, who also aired a new television ad accusing Bush of misleading America in the speech.

Latest polls show Bush's support here at about 50 percent, and his New Hampshire supporters privately express concern that Buchanan could embarrass the president on Tuesday.

In Belcamp, Md., Bush told reporters he would not respond to Buchanan's criticism.

"I vowed to try to get through this election without responding to him and I think I've got a good chance because it's elections Tuesday up there," Bush said.

Bush said he had been absorbing "these shots from all sides."

"It's not just him, they are all having a field day," Bush said. "But what I am trying to do is get the country moving, then I'll come out with my dukes up and ready to do battle."

Among Democrats, Sen. Bob Kerrey, working his way through a schedule crowded with plant visits, declared that Bush and his Democratic rivals were guilty of an "unpardonable sin" for not offering detailed plans to overhaul the nation's system of long-term health care.

Kerrey was asked by a reporter if health care was not really a secondary issue in this recession-weary state and whether many voters believed he had not offered an adequate economic plan.

"There may be some truth to that," Kerrey said.

He caught himself a few seconds later and rattled off several of his economic ideas.

"I'm coming with an economic strategy that I believe is far more muscular than what Paul Tsongas has," Kerrey said.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa has been running television ads here accusing Kerrey, Clinton and Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts of siding with the wealthy on tax issues. Kerrey fired back Friday with a new TV ad that accused Harkin of distorting the record. It summed up Harkin as "old-style Democrat, old style negative campaign."

"I'm not bashing anyone," Harkin said, even as he launched radio ads critical of Clinton and Tsongas.

He also told a rally here that as governor of Arkansas, Clinton had compiled the worst environmental record in the nation and that Tsongas had lobbied on behalf of a Massachusetts company that was a major air polluter.

"Tom is playing fast and loose on these issues," said Tsongas. He said he represented the company in an effort to prevent a corporate takeover that would have cost jobs in Massachusetts.

Tsongas aired a new ad, too, showing the man who overcame cancer swimming briskly while a narrator lists Tsongas' economic ideas.

Clinton campaigned at shopping malls, senior citizens centers and a supermarket _ where he underscored his promise to help the middle class by pushing throught the checkout line three baskets full of groceries _ the $400 he said average families would get from his middle-class tax cut. His campaign unveiled two new spots, both promoting his promises on the economy, health care and a fund to provide college loans regardless of incomes.

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