The U.S. Catholic bishops today will launch their most extensive campaign for political influence, distributing millions of election guides urging the nation's 61 million Catholics to get involved in the 2000 races.

The guide, "Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium," which will be mailed to churches around the country in the next month, does not promote specific candidates. But it does urge Catholic voters to choose candidates who comply with the church's position on issues including abortion, the death penalty, concern for the poor and international debt relief.

The bishops release guides every four years, but they have never planned to distribute so many, with such a pointed message. The effort became urgent this year, the guide states, because values have been degraded in political life. Public life is dominated by "scandal, sensationalism and intense partisan combat," as well as "campaign contributions," the guide says.

The message is that the electorate has been lulled by a robust economy into forgetting their moral responsibility. "We are at an age where it is possible not to think about values because for so many Americans things are going so well," said Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark. "But we want them to know that as American Catholics, we want them to vote thoughtfully, with values in mind."

Tale of Bush Drug Bust Denounced

Former president George Bush yesterday angrily denounced as "mindless garbage" claims in a new book that his son, George W., was arrested on a cocaine possession charge in Houston in 1972 and that the senior Bush got a friendly judge to expunge records of the incident.

"The report is a vicious lie," the former president said in a statement. He said it was just such "nasty, groundless" attacks that dissuade many good people from entering politics.

The charges, attributed to three anonymous sources, are contained in a biography published this week, "Fortunate Son--George W. Bush and the Making of an American President," by a former Texas journalist, J.H. Hatfield.

Bush campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said the Texas governor was never arrested on a drug possession charge of any kind. The former district attorney of Harris County, Carol Vance, said in a separate statement that Texas had no law providing for the expungement of criminal records until 1977. He also took issue with Hatfield's report that the unnamed judge in question was a Republican. Vance said there were no Republican judges handling felony cases in Houston in 1972.

In his statement, the former president said he had "never intervened with any judge on any matter. The author can stand by his anonymous sources all he wants, but they are not telling the truth. He has insulted our son's character and my character and I resent it."

The senior Bush said he was proud that his son "is willing and is strong enough to take the heat, even in the face of this kind of mindless garbage."

Friends and Family Testify for McCain

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has taken to the New Hampshire airwaves, with the help of his wife and two old friends.

In what are known in the trade as testimonial ads, the GOP presidential contender yesterday launched three 60-second radio spots in which others hail his personal qualities. Former New Hampshire senator Warren B. Rudman says the admiral's son cut funding for an unneeded submarine program. McCain's Naval Academy roommate, Frank Gamboa, describes how McCain challenged an upperclassman who was mistreating a Filipino steward in the mess hall.

And the senator's wife, Cindy McCain, recalls him deciding on the spot to adopt an ailing girl she brought back from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh.

Why not mention campaign issues? "We're still not as well known as many of the other candidates in the race," said McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky.

While none of the spots mentions McCain's ordeal as a Vietnam POW, the tag line for Cindy McCain's ad suggests a likely theme for future advertising: "John McCain, the character to do what's right, the courage to fight for it."

Staff writers George Lardner Jr. and Howard Kurtz contributed to this report.