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A folksy George W. Bush reassures Florida seniors

With Jeb's backing, the elder brother debuts his new look at a Clearwater retirement community and tells a receptive audience he will protect Social Security.

George W. Bush came to the right place for a hug.

With Florida up for grabs in the race for president, the Texas governor brought his retooled campaign to the Top of the World retirement complex Monday and received a warm embrace from hundreds of admiring seniors.

The feeling was mutual.

Bush walked over and hugged 71-year-old Felicia Petosa of Clearwater after she praised Bush's integrity and thanked him for his campaign. "It's a lot of work to go from place to place and put up with us," she said.

"Not with you, though," Bush smiled.

The retirement community, where Republicans outnumber Democrats and Bush's father and brother have both campaigned in the past, provided a safe, friendly venue to debut a new Bush look.

The formal speeches read from TelePrompTers, the podium and the quick exit of recent campaign trips were gone. Instead, Bush worked the room like a talk show host, his sport coat off and a microphone in his right hand as he answered nearly a dozen questions from the audience.

Even the campaign slogan was new: "Real Plans for Real People."

"When people see me, they need to see me more answering questions, face to face with the voters," Bush said in an interview Monday with the St. Petersburg Times and several other Florida newspapers.

After leaving Clearwater, Bush held an airport rally Monday night in West Palm Beach before a $500,000 fundraiser for the Florida Republican Party at a Palm Beach mansion. He also will campaign in Orlando this morning.

The Texas governor's mission on this Florida swing is to reassure seniors and independent voters that he will protect Social Security and offer a quality prescription drug benefit to seniors on Medicare.

Vice President Al Gore has argued that Bush's plan to allow younger workers to divert a portion of their payroll taxes from Social Security into private investment accounts would force tax increases or benefit cuts. The Democrat also contends that Bush's prescription drug program still would leave millions without coverage.

But Bush told seniors Gore is engaging in "scare tactics." He reminded listeners at Top of the World that Lawton Chiles' campaign spread false accusations during the 1994 governor's race that his brother, Jeb Bush, would harm Social Security.

"You can't scare somebody and try to lead them," Bush said. "That is short-term politics."

Bush would offer seniors a variety of Medicare plans, including the existing one and new options offered through private insurers and health maintenance organizations. Premiums would be all or partially paid by the government for low-income seniors with annual incomes of up to $14,600 for individuals and up to $19,700 for couples. No seniors would pay more than $6,000 in out-of-pocket expenses each year for prescription drugs.

The cost of Bush's Medicare program is about $200-billion over 10 years, including restoration of about $40-billion in Medicare cuts that have pinched nursing homes and home health providers.

Gore would spend more on Medicare, including $253-billion over 10 years to add a prescription drug benefit for all seniors through the existing Medicare program.

But Bush said seniors deserve more choices.

"Seems like to me we need to trust seniors to be able to tailor a plan to meet each person's needs," he said. "I trust people."

Countered Tad Devine, a top Gore strategist: "The issue in this election doesn't resolve around how much trust candidates have in voters. It revolves around how much trust voters have in the candidates."

Whether voters trust Bush or Gore more in the debate over Social Security and Medicare could determine which candidate wins Florida's 25 electoral voters. About one-third of the state's likely voters are seniors, and they tend to be the most skeptical of changes to Social Security and of relying on private insurers and HMOs for a prescription drug benefit for Medicare.

Bush said he wants to emphasize that he is giving younger workers more choices with Social Security and seniors more choices with Medicare _ but no one would be forced to change from the current entitlement programs.

"That's why I'm taking the issue on, as opposed to getting defined by the scare tactics," he said in the interview. "I'm trying to get out ahead of the issue with a positive agenda. I'm not afraid to talk about it."

But though he was once comfortably ahead in Florida, Bush now appears to be in a tight race with Gore here even though Gov. Jeb Bush remains popular. That's why he is spending two days here this week, then coming back next week for a fundraiser in Tampa.

Gore and his running mate, Joseph Lieberman, also promise that their campaign will visit Florida at least once a week between now and the Nov. 7 election.

"We're doing very well," Devine said. "We've already succeeded in forcing George W. Bush to compete for Florida. They were taking it for granted, and I don't think they're doing that anymore."

Republicans acknowledge they are in for a fight.

"People are uncomfortable with our lead, which is exactly where you want them to be," said St. Petersburg lawyer Rick Baker, a co-chairman of Bush's Pinellas campaign. "You don't want them to sit back and say, "Oh, okay. We're going to win this thing.' "

With his brother at his side, George W. Bush looked more rested and sounded more upbeat Monday than he did on a swing through Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania last week.

One feature remained the same.

As he does at almost every stop, Bush introduced a family who he said would save more under his proposed tax cuts than Gore's. In Clearwater, it was Orlando and Kim Saavedra and their three children of Land O'Lakes. Bush said the family earns $73,000 a year and would save $3,220 under his proposed tax cuts compared with $392 under Gore's.

But at Top of the World, Bush returned to a community forum format that has been missing in action since the primaries. He answered questions on issues ranging from prescription drugs to education and the environment.

Often, Bush slipped into an easy, Texas drawl.

On promising a prescription drug benefit: "I'm enough of a plain-spoken fella to mean it."

On his proposed $1.3-trillion in tax cuts over 10 years: "The federal government is overchargin' now, it seems like to me."

On what the Saavedra family is facing as it raises three children: "Man, they don't know what they're fixin' to get into, either."

Having his younger brother along didn't hurt.

Asked about HMO reform, George W. Bush began, "We're the only state in the union that has actually done something on HMO reform, unless you have."

Jeb Bush, sitting in the front row, nodded.

"Two states in the union," Bush laughed, correcting himself. "Of course. What was I thinking?"

While the Bush brothers were warmly received inside the community room, some Top of the World residents had no interest in seeing the Republican candidate for president. More than one-third of the complex's 10,000 residents are Democrats.

"I haven't felt his sincerity up to now," said Helen Johnson, an 81-year-old Democrat who said she feels more comfortable with Gore's plans for Social Security and prescription drugs. "I really don't trust George Bush."