Texas Gov. George W. Bush today vigorously defended his decision to ignore primary campaign spending limits, saying he needed the flexibility to compete against wealthy publisher Steve Forbes in the GOP primaries and prepare for a general election campaign against a sitting vice president.

"I'm playing the hand I was dealt," Bush said. He cited the 1996 campaign, in which Forbes, who contributed $36 million of his own money, spent millions on ads attacking the record of the eventual nominee, Robert J. Dole. Earlier this week, Forbes said he was prepared to challenge Bush just as vigorously.

Bush today defiantly warned that he would use his money to fight back. "I'm competing in the primary against somebody who can write one check," Bush told reporters. "I'm mindful of what happened in 1996 and I'm not going to let it happen to me. I've got too many people counting on me to become the nominee of the party."

But Bush said the decision also reflected his determination to have the financial resources to begin waging a general election campaign early next spring, if he has wrapped up the GOP nomination by then. Four years ago, Dole was virtually broke by the time he effectively captured the nomination, and limped through the spring against a better-financed President Clinton, who was able to conserve resources because he faced no primary opposition.

Looking ahead to a possible contest with Vice President Gore, Bush said he needs plenty of resources to compete with someone who has the White House as his launching pad.

"I want to win the general election, and I want to be in a position between when the primaries end and the [Republican] convention [in late July 2000] to have as much flexibility as possible to get out my message," Bush said. "There's a chance I'll be running against somebody who will be able to jump on a government airplane and travel all over the country making promises. I want to be able to respond. The best way to do so is not to accept taxpayer money."

Bush asserted he is "playing by the rules" and said his decision to decline matching funds was actually good for the system of public financing of primaries. Citing projections that the taxpayer-financed fund for the primaries might be depleted next year, Bush said, "So I guess I'm doing the system a favor too."

Bush made his announcement at the start of a two-day bus tour of Iowa, where he challenged Clinton and Congress to provide disaster relief for farmers suffering from historically low commodity and livestock prices.

"The president has recently been on a poverty tour," Bush said. "Perhaps he ought to come to farm country if he wants to find people who are hurting. He could at least look right here." Clinton will be in Iowa on Friday.

Although the farm crisis stems from market forces and not a natural disaster, Bush, who is a defender of free markets and limited government intervention in the economy, nonetheless said disaster payments were appropriate. "I believe disaster is disaster," he said.

Bush's tour began a day after Gore, campaigning in Iowa, criticized Bush's record on gun control, including signing legislation that allows Texas residents to carry concealed weapons.

"In a dangerous society, the people in my state felt like they needed to protect themselves," Bush responded. "If that's the case, then we ought to know who they are and we ought to make sure that they're trained and they ought to make sure that their background justifies them being able to protect themselves."

Democrats plan to use Bush's gun control record against him in states such as California. But Bush said he would not support concealed-carry legislation nationally. "That ought to be done on a state-by-state basis," he said.

Bush also said he was "amazed" at the attention he has received not only from Gore but from Clinton, who challenged Bush's philosophy of "compassionate conservatism" on Wednesday. "I must be a threat to his so-called legacy," Bush said of Clinton.

This was the GOP front-runner's second trip to Iowa and as he shook hands with citizens under a blazing sun, he appealed for help in winning the Iowa Republican straw poll, which he has vowed to win. But Bush said a poor showing wouldn't doom his campaign. "I think with $30 million in the bank, I've got pretty good staying power," he said.

CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush signs autographs after rally in Fort Dodge, Iowa, during his second campaign visit to the state.