GARFIELD, N.J. -- President Bush began fighting his way back yesterday from a nearly 2-to-1 deficit in the polls by delivering an emotional appeal to the conservative Democrats who have put Republicans in the White House for the past dozen years.
"I will not let you down," Mr. Bush promised in an unusually impassioned address to several thousand first- and second-generation Americans at an outdoor rally in this Democratic stronghold. "I will fight for the faith; I will fight for American families. We are one nation under God, and never forget it. We can overcome any problems we face."
Raising his voice to a combative pitch, Mr. Bush declared: "The family is under siege, and the choices in this election are clear: On one side, the advocates of the liberal agenda; on the other side are you and I and those values of the family that we share."
Earlier, over boxed lunches in the gym of Archbishop Ryan High School in Philadelphia, he aimed for the heart of the Catholic vote -- nearly one-fourth of the electorate -- by emphasizing his support for a $1,000 tuition voucher program. The proposal would permit parents to use the vouchers to help pay private- or parochial-school tuition.
During a question-and-answer session with about 500 students, parents and teachers invited by the Catholic archdiocese, Mr. Bush called his support for the $1,000 voucher program "a distinct difference" between himself and Bill Clinton. The Democratic nominee supports school choice, but only within the public school system, and opposes using taxpayer money for private education.
The president never mentioned Mr. Clinton by name but leveled his attack at the National Education Association, the teachers union that endorsed Mr. Clinton and was the single-largest group represented at last week's Democratic National Convention.
Mr. Bush blamed the union's influence over the Democratic-led Congress for its refusal to approve his school-choice voucher program.
Later, at the rally in New Jersey, where much of the crowd was of Eastern European descent, Mr. Bush took credit for helping bring about the collapse of Soviet communism and promised to bring the same leadership to the domestic front.
He sounded the conservative campaign themes that Republicans have repeatedly used to touch chords with the so-called Reagan Democrats: law and order, welfare reform and "family values."
He apparently succeeded in getting some doubters in his audiences to take a second look.
"Before today, I didn't think he was as interested in education as he is," said Margaret Duffy, a Democrat from Bala Cynwyd, Pa., whose husband works at Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia.
But many others said that the economy was a more important issue and that they were still waiting to hear more about what Mr. Bush intends to do about it.
The one-day trip into what the president's campaign spokeswoman, Torie Clarke, called "blue-collar, Reagan-Democrat country" was part of an effort to draw a sharp contrast between Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton on social issues.
The Bush campaign acknowledges that national anguish over the economy, especially the disappearance of jobs, is the
overarching issue of the election and calls it the principal reason for the president's poor showing in the polls.
But they figure they can battle head-to-head with Mr. Clinton on the question of which man has the better approach to fixing the economy, while at the same time sweetening their appeal to conservative voters with other issues.
In a postscript to the controversy over Vice President Dan Quayle's misspelling of the word "potato," the vice president's name was spelled incorrectly on tickets to a Bush campaign rally at Philadelphia's Northeast Airport. The line on the ticket read: "Paid for by Bush-Quale."