Texas Gov. George W. Bush signaled his determination to battle Vice President Gore and the Democrats for supremacy in Silicon Valley today with another demonstration of his campaign's financial muscle and challenged the Clinton administration on key high-tech issues.
Wrapping up a three-day campaign trip to California in which he laid out general election themes and ignored his rivals, the front-runner for the Republican nomination let his supreme confidence spill into public view at a fund-raising breakfast with high-tech executives and venture capitalists.
"This is not my first trip to this incredible land called Silicon Valley," Bush said. "It's my first trip as president of the United States." Catching himself, he added, "Soon to be president of the United States."
Bush's appearance in Palo Alto today marked the opening of what is likely to be a fierce battle for the allegiance of the high-tech industry and for the symbolism of a future-oriented message built around the new economy.
Vice President Gore has spent countless hours combing Silicon Valley for political support, with considerable success. Former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, Gore's lone rival for the Democratic nomination, also has built a financial base among Silicon Valley executives.
Republicans have been slower to plumb the area's political potential, but many high-tech executives see in Bush a candidate who will appeal to the economically conservative but socially moderate voters who populate the region. "I think this guy relates to the new economy better than Gore does," said Sam Colella, a partner at Institutional Venture Management.
One sign that Democrats may agree came before Bush arrived in Silicon Valley. Earlier this week, President Clinton broke with congressional Democrats and struck a deal with Republicans on legislation that would limit lawsuits that may result from year 2000 computer problems. Grudgingly praising Clinton's decision, Bush said, "With this administration, wisdom comes so rarely that we should not complain even if it comes too late."
During two days in the San Francisco Bay area, Bush raised $1.7 million for his campaign. Campaign officials said about $850,000 of that amount came from individuals in Silicon Valley. Gore raised $330,000 at a Silicon Valley fund-raiser earlier this year.
Co-hosts for today's breakfast included John Chambers, chairman of Cisco Systems Inc.; James L. Barksdale, former chairman of Netscape Communications Corp.; Floyd Kvamme, a venture capitalist with Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers; Gordon Moore, chairman of Intel Corp.; Ray Lane, president of Oracle Corp.; and Robert J. Herbold, executive vice president of Microsoft Corp.
Bush avoided social issues such as abortion or gay rights, where he may find himself at odds with executives in the high-tech industry. Instead he praised the "daring and enterprise" of the high-tech industry and said the risk-taking embodied by Silicon Valley speaks "to the spirit of America."
Gore spokesman Chris Lehane challenged Bush's credentials as a leader on high-tech issues. He said Gore has support from high-tech leaders because of "the leadership he has provided on high-tech issues going as far back as the early 1980s."
But in his appearance, Bush attempted to drive a wedge between Gore and Silicon Valley by forcing the vice president to choose between his friends in the technology industry and key Democratic constituencies such as trial lawyers and organized labor.
Bush urged the administration to again raise the cap on temporary visas for highly skilled workers from overseas, which high-tech companies say are needed to keep them competitive. "The limit on H-1B visas should be raised, Mr. President and Mr. Vice President," Bush said. Congress raised the limits on such visas a year ago, but computer companies say they should be increased again because of a shortage of programmers and technicians. The White House initially opposed raising the limits last year because of opposition by organized labor.
Bush promised to "stand up and fight the trial bar" by passing "meaningful, real, long-lasting tort reform," pointing to his record in Texas where the legislature passed such legislation during his first year in office. "From the very beginning," Bush said, "I will take the side of innovation over litigation every single time."
Bush also sided with the high-tech industry on the issue of export controls on encryption technology and advanced computer systems, saying he would "safeguard genuine military technology" while making it possible for U.S. companies to sell technology that is readily available elsewhere. The administration has supported the controls for national security and law enforcement reasons.
Silicon Valley executives have been at the forefront of the fight in California to expand the number of charter schools. Bush cast himself as an advocate of both charter schools and school choice. "I believe the education oligopoly has little incentive to reform itself," he said. "This country must be bold enough to challenge the status quo."
Researcher Ben White in Washington contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Gov. George W. Bush avoided social issues on which executives might differ.