Vice President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Geraldine A. Ferraro, jousted long-distance over the federal budget deficits yesterday as Walter F. Mondale put the finishing touches on his plan to reduce the debt by two-thirds by fiscal year 1989.
"How long you you think we can continue a credit-card recovery before the bills come due?" Ferraro asked a rally of 2,500 in Portland, Maine.
She denounced President Reagan's economic policies as "the theory of the survival of the richest," and said of the deficit: "You can't see it, you can't smell it, you can't touch it, but you can feel it."
Bush, campaigning in Detroit, sought to shift the blame for the deficit's tripling during the Reagan administration onto Congress.
"I think they have to take a large share of it," he said. "I don't say they're solely responsible, but they appropriate every single dime, don't they? . . . The American people blame the Congress more than they do the president of the United States."
Democratic presidential nominee Mondale was here yesterday, closeted for four hours with senior staff and economic advisers. They were readying a package expected to call for tax increases and budget cuts totaling $150 billion to $175 billion in fiscal 1989, the fourth year of what would be his second presidential term. He is to reveal the details Monday in Philadelphia.
Among the economic advisers meeting with Mondale were W. Bowman Cutter, associate director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Carter administration, Susan Irving, former staff director for Charles L. Schultze, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Carter, and William Galston, a University of Texas government professor who was a speech-writer for John B. Anderson when the former House member ran for president in 1980.
Reagan, meantime, was at Camp David and chose a subject far removed from the campaign rough-and-tumble for his weekly paid radio address: the dangers of too much television.
"Now I don't want to sound like a scolding parent," the president said, "but time given to a television show that ought to be given to a schoolbook is time badly spent.
"Watching TV is passive," he said. "It's not living life. Life involves effort and growth. You won't grow by watching a situation comedy . . . . I hope we aren't becoming a nation of watchers, because what made us great is that we have always been a nation of doers."
Ten days ago, at an awards ceremony at the White House, Reagan described a much more benign, positive role for the medium in which he once starred. Television, he said then, has become the "American neighbor," providing "continuity and reassurance" in place of the extended American family.
In the Democratic response to Reagan's broadcast, House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said, "When it comes to education, President Reagan has been the country's No. 1 scrooge. The first thing he did on taking office was ax the guaranteed student loan program for college students."
Earlier this week, O'Neill had mild criticism for Mondale, calling him too much of a gentleman and urging him to get "tougher" on Reagan. Today, Bush used those observations to fault Mondale for not being tough enough to lead the nation.
"I think that highly negative campaign where they tell Mr. Mondale to be something other than what you are -- go in there and try to sound tough or sound like a leader, which he is not, I don't think it's going to work," Bush said.
"It's hard for a leopard to change its spots, and it's hard for Mondale ," the vice president said to laughter and applause at a $250-per-person reception attended by 1,000 Republicans.
Earlier, Bush told the Michigan Republican State Convention that "Ronald Reagan's leadership" had brought America back from the "doom and gloom" of the Carter administration while Mondale took "17 days to decide whether he was for what we did in Grenada."
Foreshadowing the GOP's response to Mondale's deficit reduction package, which is certain to call for tax increases and cuts in military spending, Bush said:
"What I don't agree with is the Democrats' argument that you just weaken the nation's defenses . . . and that you raise taxes and that's how you close the deficit. We don't believe it. They've tried that.
"They've just soaked the dickens out of the American people on taxes, and then they go and spend it; they don't save it . . . . The worker in these plants out here is tired of that, frankly, and that's why we're doing well with the blue-collar worker."
Ferraro, who split her campaign day between Maine and Connecticut, lambasted the administration's environmental record and promised that a Mondale administration would redress New England's grievances about acid rain by cutting sulfur dioxide emissions.