Gore assails pharmaceutical giants; Bush considers vice presidential contenders
CLAYTON, Missouri (CNN) -- Vice President Al Gore set out on the presidential campaign trail on Monday in suburban St. Louis, blasting the domestic pharmaceutical industry for increases in the cost of prescription drugs -- and in the burgeoning population of senior citizens unable to keep up with those costs.
Gore, the Democratic Party's hope for the presidency this election year, appeared in Clayton with House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt to promote Gore's $255 billion proposal to provide senior Americans with an insurance plan that would compensate them for their prescription drug costs.
"Three out of every four seniors don't have good enough coverage to pay for their pills," the vice president told a forum at the Clayton Community Center. "If I'm entrusted with the presidency, I will fight for affordable prescription drugs for our seniors."
Prescription drug coverage for seniors -- many of whom live on fixed incomes and must decide every month how to balance the costs of their prescriptions with the costs of other basic necessities -- has rocketed to the top of many legislators' lists of key issues in recent months.
Vice President Gore discussed prescription drug costs with seniors at the
Clayton Community Center in Clayton, Missouri on Monday
The Clinton White House and the Republican-controlled Congress have squared off on the matter, with the House of Representatives approving a bill last week that would lay the responsibility for such drug coverage at the doorsteps of private insurers, who would receive a variety of government subsidies for their efforts. The administration would prefer establishing prescription drug provisions under the sprawling Medicare insurance system, which provides some 39 million seniors with their foundation health coverage.
Gore aides said Monday that prescription drug prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation while industry profits also have skyrocketed. Last year, the pharmaceutical industry enjoyed profits of 18.6 percent of revenues -- or nearly four times the median for Fortune 500 companies.
Drug prices also were much higher in the United States than in neighboring Canada and Mexico, they said. They cited the $99.24 U.S. cost of a 30-pill bottle of AstraZeneca's Prilosec, used to treat ulcers and heartburn -- compared with $49.53 in Canada and $17.14 in Mexico.
"The net result is they're price-gouging, and you have to pay the bill," Gore told his senior audience on Monday.
The vice president's plan would pay half of prescription drug costs for seniors, up to $5,000 a year, with no deductible, and would offer discounts on prescriptions for every Medicare beneficiary. Gore rolled out the first versions of the plan during the early primary season, when he was locked in a battle for the Democratic nomination with former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.
While drug manufacturers have used television advertising to warn against the possibility of price controls on their industry, an aide to the vice president said Monday, "We don't want price controls. What we are trying to do is reduce prices so seniors can afford the drugs that they need."
Texas Gov. George W. Bush spoke to journalists at his ranch near Crawford, Texas, prior to a meeting with adviser Dick Cheney on Monday
Bush has aligned himself with House Republicans and expressed his support for a drug coverage plan that relies heavily on the efforts of private insurers. He has not spoken as often of the issue while out on the stump. Gephardt intimated on Monday that Bush has spoken less than Gore on the issue because he doesn't understand the issue "the way Al Gore does."
"That's what elections are all about -- for us to define who we are," Gore told the Clayton audience. "You need someone who is willing to fight for you and not the powerful drug companies."
"I'm for you and I'm not going to be on the side of these drug companies the way the other side is. The other side is not for the people, it's for the powerful," he said.
Bush's veep quest
Meanwhile, with the major parties' national conventions just a few weeks away, Democrats and Republicans stepped up their speculation over the extended Fourth of July weekend about who their presidential nominees might pick as running mates.
Sens. Bob Graham of Florida and Evan Bayh of Indiana popped up once more as prospective candidates for the Democrats, while Republicans pointed to New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge as their possibilities.
Neither Gore nor Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the presumed GOP nominee, have revealed who might be on their lists of prospective candidates.
Bush huddled in Texas on Monday morning with the head of his vice presidential
selection committee, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. It was not clear whether Cheney would make any recommendations to Bush during that meeting.
A Bush campaign source told CNN late last week that Bush and Cheney would discuss "in depth" the status and particulars of the search for a running mate at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
"The main test will be: Can the person be president and will the person be loyal to this administration, and will the person bring added value to the Bush administration?" Bush told reporters before meeting with Cheney. He added that he was not certain if he would announce his choice prior the Republican National Convention, which kicks off July 31, or during the party proceedings.
The two have largely communicated through frequent phone calls since Cheney, working out of Dallas, was tapped for the task by the Texas governor.
The campaign source revealed last week that Bush has begun to widen the circle of those he talks to about his pending decision. Previously, the discussion has been confined to himself, his wife, Laura and Cheney. Bush is now seeking input from staff and "people he trusts," the source said.
Bush Communications Director Karen Hughes said Thursday that Bush "has not narrowed the field to a set of finalists," much less settled on a candidate. Hughes added that as Bush goes around the country, the governor is talking to possible vice presidential candidates. She noted recent dinners with two of his fellow Republican governors, Pennsylvania's Ridge and John Engler of Michigan.
Still, some hints were divulged on Monday. Bush has met with some people -- he
mentioned outgoing Florida GOP Sen. Connie Mack, who is a favorite among conservatives. Mack insists he isn't interested.
And a meeting with Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating may only be a matter of time.
Gov. Frank Keating (R-Oklahoma)
"I have not [met Keating] yet," Bush said. "I know him well, but I have not met with him in the context of the vice presidency."
Keating's has become the nom du jour among some Republicans, supplanting Ridge.
Several Republican sources outside the Bush campaign see Keating as Bush's
most logical, strongest bet. Keating, said a source, is a four letter
word: "Safe." And that is how you want to play it when you're in the lead, the source said.
Input from interested observers
Former Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican nominee for president in 1996, said
Sunday that Bush should be looking for someone "who can help you win, or at least not hurt you." Speaking on CNN's Late Edition, Dole appeared to have his own favorite.
Gov. Tom Ridge (R-Pennsylvania)
"I still think Tom Ridge would be a good choice; that's my view," he said. Some conservatives, however, have objected to Ridge's pro-choice stand on abortion.
Asked about his wife, Elizabeth, who dropped out of the presidential race
earlier this year, Dole called her a "great choice," but suggested her
selection would be unlikely.
"Well, there's no gender gap," Dole said, adding that his wife hails from
North Carolina -- where Bush is already ahead in the polls.
"He may want to go to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois," Dole said.
"Because if he can break one of those states and do as well in the South as he is in the West and the Rocky Mountains, he's going to win." He would
not say whether the Bush campaign has been in contact with his wife.
The politicians whose names have been mentioned were coy during
appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows.
Rep. John Kasich, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, did
not rule out the possibility of accepting the vice presidential slot but
Rep. John Kasich (R-Ohio 12th), right, announces July 14, 1999 that he is dropping his bid for the presidency and endorses Gov. George W. Bush (R-Texas) for president.
"You just don't speculate on something like that," Kasich said when asked
by a caller on CNN's Late Edition.
Whitman called it "an honor" to be under consideration, but pronounced
herself "very happy" in her current post as New Jersey governor.
"I'd be crazy not to consider it, but I'm not counting on that," Whitman
said on ABC's This Week, addressing the prospect of Bush offering her the job.
Graham, speaking on NBC's Meet The Press, offered similar comments. He
called it "very flattering" to be cited as a Democratic vice presidential
contender, but he refused to say whether he would accept the post if offered.
"I will cross future bridges when I arrive at those bridges," Graham said.
CNN's Candy Crowley and
Reuters contributed to this report