GREENVILLE, MISS — GREENVILLE, Miss. -- The Bush campaign played one of its few remaining trump cards yesterday as Air Force One encircled Arkansas in a direct presidential attack on Bill Clinton's performance as governor there.
"This man has the gall to go around America and promise the moon, when on issue after issue, the sky has fallen in his own backyard," the president charged.
Though the political raid took Mr. Bush to six states surrounding his Democratic opponent's home base, he never entered it.
Instead, the president fired salvos toward Little Rock from border cities, "exposing" Mr. Clinton's record at gatherings of his neighbors.
"Bill Clinton is the wrong man to accept your trust to be president of the United States," Mr. Bush told about 2,000 Oklahomans who greeted him at a Tulsa airport hangar, where his gleaming 747 roared right up to the door.
"He talks a good game, but his actions betray his words," he said a few hours later to a similar group in Shreveport, La. "You can't be all things to all people."
Beginning before 9 a.m. in Springfield, Mo., and concluding after 9 p.m. in Memphis, Tenn., the president ticked off the contrasts between "Candidate Clinton's" promises and "Governor Clinton's" performance on civil rights, taxes, crime, child abuse, education, the environment and health care.
In each instance, Mr. Bush characterized Mr. Clinton's 12-year tenure as governor of Arkansas among the worst in the nation and in conflict with Mr. Clinton's claim to be an agent for "progressive" change.
Mr. Bush hit the governor particularly hard for accepting "generous campaign contributions" and "free plane rides" from the "powerful" chicken industry, which the president said he has failed to regulate.
As a result, Mr. Bush said, "chicken litter" is polluting "hundreds of miles of Arkansas rivers."
Clinton aides said the attacks fail to take into account that the state itself discovered the pollution problem and is doing something about it -- without federal help.
In what GOP campaign aides insisted was a slip of the tongue, Mr. Bush referred to his challenger as "Governor Taxes."
But he went on to charge that Mr. Clinton has chosen to raise taxes, such as the state sales tax, in a way that hurts poor people more than the rich.
Hopping from rally to rally but rarely getting farther into town than an airport tarmac, the president warned voters to consider "the facts" of his opponent's record "the next time Candidate Clinton says he will do for America what he's done for Arkansas."
It was no coincidence that the Arkansas governor wasn't home when the president came calling in his neighborhood.
The challenger was in East Lansing, Mich., lambasting the incumbent for refusing to participate in the first of three presidential debates arranged by a bipartisan commission. The debate was to have taken place last night in East Lansing.
"We'll probably have a debate," said the president, whose campaign refused again yesterday to take part in debates under the single-moderator format proposed by the commission.
"But for openers," Mr. Bush said, "let them debate each other: On one side Candidate Clinton, a promising young man who seems to be willing to promise anything to get elected, and Governor Clinton, whose record in Arkansas is a series of broken promises."
Yesterday's barrage was a risky use of presidential prestige and time -- two-thirds of his 16-hour day was spent in transit -- that had the potential to make Mr. Bush appear panicky and desperate.
It also exposed him to new attacks on his own record, which the
president acknowledged has some "shortcomings."
But with a new Washington Post-ABC-poll showing the president 21 points behind his challenger and losing ground, campaign officials determined the gamble was worth it.
The Bush campaign kept this trip under wraps until the last minute to minimize the heckling endured by a Bush staff bus trip through Arkansas last week.
But Clinton supporters showed up anyway, including a man in a chicken suit carrying a sign that read, "There's no debate about it, he's chicken George." The man was evicted from the rally in Greenville.
But the Bush campaign's aggressive approach was applauded by his supporters, coming the day after Mr. Bush leveled his first direct criticism at Mr. Clinton for failing to "tell the whole truth" about how he avoided service in the Vietnam War.
Mr. Bush kept saying yesterday that he was not going to talk about the draft issue, which has become a principal weapon in his effort to undermine the challenger's credibility.
But he did take note of a World War II torpedo bomber at the tarmac rally in Longview, Texas, that was just like the one he flew in the Pacific. "I'm proud I served my nation," the president said, as the crowd, heavily laced with bands and cheerleaders, applauded knowingly.