DALLAS -- A hoarse and agitated President Bush unleashed his first attack on Ross Perot yesterday, assailing one of his key proposals as irresponsible and warning voters that "there is too much at stake" in the race for the White House "to buy a pig in a poke."
Mr. Bush, who has been insisting that he would refrain from attacking his foes until later in the campaign, never mentioned Mr. Perot by name in his speech to the Texas state Republican convention. But many of his remarks in Mr. Perot's political backyard were clearly aimed at the billionaire, whose groundswell of support has threatened the president's re-election chances.
The president's "pig in a poke" line, for instance, underscored Mr. Perot's lack of government experience. And in an obvious reference to the billionaire's suggestion that he would conduct electronic "town meetings" to tap public opinion on major issues, Mr. Bush called it "just plain irresponsible and out of touch with reality."
In another reflection of Mr. Bush's troubled political prospects, the president wrapped up a three-day swing through California earlier in the day by seeking to mend his fences with the state's influential anti-tax movement.
Mr. Bush -- whose pledge to fight new taxes helped him win the White House in 1988 and then landed him in hot water when he raised them two years later -- tried to return to the fold of true believers with a no-holds-barred denunciation of taxes before the civic organization that grew out of the Proposition 13 tax revolt.
Sprinkling his speech in Universal City, Calif., with a litany of political buzzwords, he all but ignored the federal budget deficit, which has ballooned from less than $100 billion when he took office as vice president nearly 12 years ago to the record level of $400 billion this year. Instead, he lashed out at the "tax-and-spend liberals still in charge of Congress." He called them "the same crowd we've seen for decades: in charge, unchallenged, out of control."
He also invoked one of the GOP's favorite targets among Democratic congressional leaders -- Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy -- attacking "the stale idea of a Ted Kennedy-style system of nationalized health care."
Of his three public appearances in California since Thursday, yesterday's speech to a meeting of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association may have been the most politically important.
The organization is named after one of the two men who sparked Proposition 13, whose passage led to a dramatic reduction in the state's property taxes 14 years ago. And the group owes its continuing existence to concern over many of the same issues that have fueled Mr. Perot's support -- anger over the public's tax burden and the unresponsiveness of government.
For all of Mr. Bush's efforts to appeal to his listeners by identifying with these issues, he was interrupted only occasionally by applause, and some of his toughest lines were met with silence.
His speech in Dallas -- his most animated in months -- received a much more enthusiastic reception.
Unleashing his fire with the authority of a Texas six-shooter, he questioned Mr. Perot's credentials for office on a variety of fronts.
"Snappy answers and glib talk will not get the job done," Mr. Bush said. "Let somebody else become the darling of the talking heads on television. I'm going to keep on fighting to get something done for this country."
He added, "There's too much at stake for America to forget about trust and judgment and values. Too much at stake, as we say here, to buy a pig in a poke."
Mr. Bush focused on the personal characteristics needed for the presidency, a possible preview of a general election strategy in which he draws distinctions between his own style and that of Mr. Perot's.
"It's a big job to set the course for the next 40 years, and it means solving big problems with a level head, with tolerance and good judgment," Mr. Bush said. "Being president is a demanding job. And a president must be temperamentally suited for the job. And I have been tested by fire, and I am the right man for that job."