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A subculture of children is entering the world without being taught basic values and until the country is ready to identify and focus on the problem, our current level of economic prosperity cannot continue, "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert said Wednesday night.

Russert, a Buffalo native, addressed the kick-off dinner of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo's United Jewish Fund Campaign 2000 in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

"The most critical issue facing the country today is our children," Russert said. "Fifteen a day are shot to death.

"If we are losing the essence of what we are, what good is wealth and prosperity?" he asked.

A child born to an unmarried woman age 18 who doesn't have a high school education has an 80 percent chance of living in poverty, he said.

"Kids are having kids as a way to achieve dignity, but it doesn't work."

He said, "If we don't come together as a nation to identify the problem, then we can't hope to solve it. Without the basic human values of respect and love, we will not be able to continue to flourish."

Russert also said that despite the prosperity and budget surpluses, neither the Republicans nor Democrats in Washington seem able to come up with solutions to the long-term financing of Medicare and Social Security.

Both sides are playing a game of "chicken," waiting for the other to propose a solution that will be attacked.

"Why not say, 'This is the problem, here's our solution'?" Russert said. "People want to feel they are being leveled with."

Concerning the 2000 presidential election, Russert said it would take a "seismic event" for George W. Bush not to be the Republican candidate.

The Democratic race is more interesting with former U.S. senator Bill Bradley posing a threat to Vice President Gore.

But Russert raised the possibility that if Gore wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and so locks up the nomination early, the Reform Party could become a factor and Warren Beatty, Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan all are possible nominees. "And waiting in the wings are Ross Perot and Jessie Ventura," he said.

And a New York Senate race pitting Hillary Clinton against New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani would be "a battle of the titans," with the winner a likely presidential candidate in 2004, Russert predicted.

He said carrying Buffalo and Erie County will be key for either candidate and it will be interesting to see how women react to Mrs. Clinton.

Will they see her as a pioneer, or an extension of her husband, using the state as a stepping stone? he asked.

Russert said that when he wants to gauge the pulse of the nation, "I just call my three sisters in Buffalo and see what's on their minds.

"And they're undecided (on the Senate race)."

Earlier in the day Russert helped launch "Experience Today," a joint effort involving WGRZ-TV, USA Today and Bryant & Stratton Business Institute. The educational program will involve discussion on WGRZ's Wednesday Daybreak program and a 6 p.m. newscast of stories carried in that day's newspaper.

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