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Crowd cheers Bush's promises

President Bush campaigned in Tampa Bay on Saturday with Santa's sack slung over his shoulder.

He gave MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa a weather station that will keep the runways open. Then he spent 20 minutes telling an audience of older people frightening stories about a European socialist big spender named Bill Clinton.

Bush was warmly applauded by nearly 1,200 people who braved wretched weather Saturday morning to hear him speak at On Top of the World, a condominium complex so enormous that it contains three voting precincts. Fifty-eight percent of voters there are Republican.

"It was a good speech," said Hazel Prach, 71, "if he can just get the points over like he did today. He doesn't seem to be aggressive enough in his speeches."

She said she thinks Bush could be re-elected if only because people prefer "the devil you know rather than the devil that's waiting around the door."

The MacDill announcement was small potatoes compared to Bush's other political largesse this year. It was not like changing his foreign policy to build F-16s for Taiwan or changing his trade policy to subsidize wheat farmers' exports to Asia. Bush has given away billions of dollars during the campaign season.

But a plan has been in the pipeline for months to transfer 100 jobs and 15 airplanes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's center in Miami. It is intended to save taxpayers $1-million a year and could create 300 or 400 jobs in Tampa Bay, said Mark Mills, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, R-Fla.

MacDill, which was the home base for Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, "played a big role in bringing an end to the Cold War and certainly in Desert Storm," Bush told the flag-waving condo crowd.

The weather station began looking for a new home for its fleet of weather monitoring planes because the rent at Miami International Airport had grown too high.

At the same time, Mack and Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, were looking for a new tenant for the airfield at the Tampa base, which will lose its wing of F-16 fighter jets in 1994 as part of military budget cuts. Local officials have worried that without an airstrip, the base would later be shut down.

"This should brighten the spirits of a lot of people," said MacDill Task Force Chairman Alfred Austin. "So many of the military retirees have been terribly concerned about whether the base will close or not. I think they should put their minds at ease and rest assured that MacDill will remain open for a long, long time to come."

The president also visited Fort Lauderdale and Orlando on his swing through Florida, which apparently is up for grabs in this election.

He left Clearwater _ about an hour ahead of Saturday's tornadoes _ to pay another visit to the victims of Hurricane Andrew in Homestead. So far, Bush has failed to persuade Congress to rebuild Homestead Air Force Base, another of his promises.

Congress is what is wrong with this country, according to many in the audience Saturday.

"I think they're blaming Bush for the debt. That's a laugh. The Congress spends the money, not the president," said Joseph DeBardi, 78, who held a furled American flag in one hand as he watched from his wheelchair.

Bush, he said, will "make a good leader of the American nation militarily, economically, socially and domestically."

In his speech, Bush accused Clinton of using the oldest political trick in the book by trying to scare America's senior citizens. After Bush's speech, the Clinton campaign accused Bush of the same thing.

"Gov. Clinton's plan will require $218-billion in cuts in Medicaid and Medicare over the next five years," Bush said.

"It's absolutely untrue," said Avis Lavelle, Clinton's national press secretary in Little Rock, Ark., "and outrageous President Bush would be down in Florida trying to scare the life out of senior citizens about their health insurance benefits. The Clinton plan does not _ I repeat, does not _ call for cuts in Medicare."

Bush also told the audience, "No matter what Gov. Clinton says, as long as I am president, Social Security will remain safe and sound."

Clinton has not suggested changing Social Security, Lavelle said.

Bush repeated his claim that Clinton's economic plan will raise taxes not only on the rich, as Clinton says, but on anyone who makes more than $36,600.

The Clinton campaign has said that is a lie. Saturday, they called it "political sludge."

This is what is happening: Bush and Clinton each insist that the other's economic plan doesn't add up, which is true. Their health-care plans are even more vague. So each man has come up with his own scenario for what the other candidate's plan would really mean and is basing attacks on that. Then they call each other liars.

Bush said America is still the envy of the world, and he blasted Clinton for suggesting the country is in decline.

"I know America's endured some very tough economic times," Bush said. "But understand, we're being affected _ and most people know this _ by a global economic slowdown. Our competitors in Europe would trade places with us in a minute. And Gov. Clinton offers European social welfare state policies: more government, more special interests, more taxes on the middle class."

During the Bush administration, taxes have increased faster than in any four-year period in history; spending has increased an average of $29-billion a year, more than at any time since World War II; and the deficit has increased.

The sharpest jabs at Clinton weren't taken by Bush but by his campaign partner for the day, Gerald McRaney, the actor who plays the title role in Major Dad on television. McRaney warmed up the crowd by taking shots at Clinton's draft record.

"Not all of us (baby boomers) turned out that badly," McRaney said. "Occasional ones of us did our duty" _ here the audience broke in with "yeah!" and applause _ "and most of us who didn't do our duty at least stayed loyal to our country."

Baby boomers make up nearly half the eligible voters in the country, but turnout is always better among their parents' generation.

Bush seemed headed for a gaffe when he talked about the need for term limits in Congress. Looking at a sea of white-haired retirees, he said: "The president's terms are limited. Why not limit the terms of some of those old geezers up there?"

But the crowd only laughed and applauded.

"I wasn't offended by it, because I'm an old geezer and I can't think as fast as I used to," said Marvin Ellmer, 80.

_ Staff writers Wendy Lemus and David Dahl contributed to this story.

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