NEENAH, Wis. -- The White House launched a scathing assault yesterday on Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton's foreign policy credentials as President Bush told voters that no issue in this election year would matter more than trust.
The attack -- a major escalation of White House efforts to question the character and competence of the Democratic ticket -- came as Mr. Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore, began to challenge Mr. Bush's foreign policy leadership.
Speaking a day after the two Democrats voiced sharp criticisms of the administration's policies toward Yugoslavia and Iraq, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said the Democrats' remarks "show why this team is a long way from being qualified to lead the country."
The White House was responding to a Clinton campaign statement calling upon the administration to exercise "real leadership" and do more to stand up to Serbian aggression. Mr. Fitzwater called the proposal "reckless" and said Mr. Clinton "better do some more homework on foreign policy."
On a daylong campaign trip, Mr. Bush never mentioned his rivals or their proposals directly. But as he began to reorient his campaign around the theme of trust, he warned darkly of late-night phone calls to the White House bringing news of trouble abroad.
Voters should put their faith, the president said, on a candidate who has "the experience, the seasoning, the guts to do the right thing."
And Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin reinforced the assault as he introduced the president at a campaign rally here. "If someone came to you saying he wanted to be your tour guide on a trip around the world, but then admitted he'd never left the South," he asked, "would you go with him?"
The White House appeared determined yesterday to squelch the bid by Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore to establish themselves as rival authorities on foreign policy.
On Sunday, the Clinton campaign statement called upon the administration to "act with the greatest possible urgency before it is too late" in isolating the Serbian regime.
Mr. Clinton urged that the blockade around Serbia be tightened to include stop-and-search operations at sea and that the international community charge the Serbian regime with war crimes. He said that if the cease-fire in Bosnia continues to be violated, the United States should take the lead in seeking U.N. authority for air strikes against those who persist in attacking humanitarian relief efforts.
Mr. Gore said Mr. Bush's foreign policy was to blame for the recurrent standoffs between Iraq and the United States. He said that the administration had made a "serious miscalculation" in expecting that Saddam Hussein would be overthrown by the Iraqi people after the gulf war.
The White House did not respond initially to either attack. But when two reporters approached Mr. Fitzwater yesterday morning to ask about Mr. Clinton's criticism, he shot back that "these comments and Mr. Gore's comments on Iraq" were indicative of a team not yet qualified for national leadership.
Yesterday, Mr. Clinton said he was "perplexed" by Mr. Fitzwater's response. "I just don't know what to make of that. . . . In all of my statements about Yugoslavia I try to be aggressive and forthright. . . . Maybe they are on the defensive. It was a very responsible statement, very well thought out, carefully put together after I talked to Gore on the phone about it."
By urging the administration to take the lead -- if cease-fire violations persist -- in seeking U.N. authorization for air strikes against Serbian forces, the Democratic nominee staked out an aggressive stance the White House has been reluctant to adopt.
And in demanding the prosecution of the Serbian regime for war crimes, he drew a pointed comparison in saying this was something the administration "should have done long ago."
The assault on the Democratic ticket on foreign policy came as Mr. Bush redoubled his efforts to drive home the theme that "when you go into the voting booth and pull the curtain behind you, trust matters."
Mr. Bush mentioned the word "trust" nearly two dozen times in each of the nearly identical campaign speeches he delivered here and in Wyoming, Mich.
Campaign spokeswoman Torie Clarke called the remarks an "escalation" in Republican tactics and said they were designed to call attention to "fundamental philosophical differences" between the president and Mr. Clinton.