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Our opinion: The choice is between two able and well-qualified candidates, but the man from Texas deserves your vote.

On Tuesday, the American people elect their first president of the new millennium. Although there are several other candidates on the ballot, for all practical purposes the choice is between the Democratic standard bearer, Vice President Al Gore, and his Republican rival, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.

Despite the fog of partisan rhetoric and manipulation and distortion of records and facts, the choice is not so hard to see. This is true of the candidates' specific proposals as well as their general philosophy.

The Times prefers the man from Texas.

A review of some of the important differences shows why Bush is better-qualified.

Both candidates rely on a projected mammoth budget surplus totaling an estimated $4.6 trillion.

Bush proposes a massive across-the-board tax cut of $1.3 trillion over 10 years. Gore, who derides the Bush plan as catering to the wealthy, would also provide a tax cut, but it would be smaller ($500 billion) and would generally favor people at the lower end of the income scale. He would spend a much larger portion of the surplus to pay off the national debt.

Of Social Security and prescription drugs

Bush would allow younger taxpayers to divert some of their Social Security tax into stocks and bonds. That could improve their retirement income considerably, but could also mean severe losses while at the same time reducing their guaranteed income from the Social Security program. Gore would keep the guaranteed benefits intact, but provide incentives for additional retirement savings to be invested, with federal funds matching the contributions of people in low- and moderate-income categories, in essence a 10-year, $200-billion subsidy.

For many retirees, the cost of prescription drugs has become an acute problem. Both candidates agree the issue needs to be addressed, but have different solutions. Gore would give Washington a greater role while Bush would give some funds to the states and also have seniors buy insurance.

These examples underline a fundamental difference in approach: Gore would rely on the government to do many things he thinks need to be done. Bush wants individuals and states to handle as much of the responsibility as possible.

There are many who believe Gore has to succeed President Clinton so the economy continues on its path of progress. They are making two fundamental errors. First, presidents generally have only limited powers to affect the course of the economy. Democrat Jimmy Carter and the Republican elder George Bush were unfairly blamed for economic problems and ended up as one-termers. Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Clinton, on the other hand, have received exaggerated credit.

However, to the extent a president is responsible for the economy, Bush would be the better person to take the reins from Clinton, who has pursued centrist and moderately conservative policies, cooperated with the GOP-controlled Congress on many fiscal matters, and allowed Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to continue the Fed's highly successful monetarist fine-tuning . Gore, on the other hand, has clearly allied himself with the leftist-statist wing of the Democratic Party.

Providing leadership

On the issue of leadership, a president should be able to communicate and inspire, to command trust and respect, to bring individuals and groups together. Nobody can seriously say Bush is lacking in these qualities.

Bush is properly proud of his record in Texas, where he helped craft bipartisan agreements on many contentious issues. Gore, on the other hand, has demonstrated a distressing willingness to encourage class envy, if not class warfare. Neither his strident rhetoric nor his policy proposals befit the image of someone who wants to be the nation's president and the leader of all its people.

Closer to home, Bush is more likely to favor development of a third Chicago airport at Peotone. Gore will be beholden to the Daley brothers, and thus unlikely to help this important project. The Clinton-Gore Administration has blocked serious consideration of this project that could provide great economic benefit to Northwest Indiana and the south Chicago suburbs and contribute relief to a glutted national air system.

About character

Regarding the so-called "character issue," Gore should not be held accountable for his boss' sins, but that does not mean he should not be held accountable for his own -- and he does have some that should be cause for concern. What are politely referred to as exaggerations by Gore constitute, in truth, unfortunately, a long-running record of falsehoods. Not a trait suited well to a president.

Bush has been governor of the second-largest state, and thus possesses valuable experience. He was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote, demonstrating a highly desirable ability to appeal to and work with people of diverse political, ideological, racial, religious, ethnic and income groups -- a veritable America. He is a prudent politician, willing to change that which needs changing but not about to launch a revolution that would sweep everything away so he could rebuild according to some preconceived design.

Above all, he is a good man, an honest man, a self-described compassionate conservative, which means he is not an ideologue who would sacrifice the interests of the needy and the unfortunate.

Americans can safely entrust their governance to George W. Bush

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