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GINGRICH DETECTS SHIFT TO BUSH, CALLS MEDIA BIAS FACTOR IN RACE TOO CLOSE TO CALL

Voters have moved to President Bush in recent days, but the election is still too close to call and will hinge on voter turnout, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said during a speech Friday in Amherst.

Lingering concerns about Bush's performance, a media generally biased against the president and the inability of Republicans to reach minority voters are the reasons this race is so tight, he said.

"We are a country that's confused," Gingrich said at a WBEN 930 AM Power Lunch sponsored by Independent Health Foundation. He spoke before a group of health care professionals who filled the main ballroom at the Buffalo Niagara Marriott in Amherst.

Gingrich, a Georgia Republican and architect of 1994's "Contract with America," served as House speaker from 1995 to 1998. He is now an author and public speaker who remains active in politics.

The friendly audience greeted him with a standing ovation.

He started off by saying Buffalo played a key role in the modern conservative movement as the home turf of Jack Kemp, Gingrich's former tax-cutting House colleague and former Housing and Urban Development chief.

Republicans such as Kemp changed the terms of the debate in Washington, Gingrich said, and Democrats are on the verge of being a permanent minority.

The Democratic Party, he said later, isn't able to reach people who go to church regularly and rural voters because its values are so far removed from them.

"It can't reach out to rural America because even when you go goose hunting, nobody believes it," Gingrich said, referring to a recent excursion by Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, who describes himself as a longtime gun owner.

Nagging voter concerns over the economy, the flu vaccine shortage, American deaths in Iraq and high oil prices have kept the race close, he said.

He also blamed the tight race on bias in the media, saying all "elite" media lean to the left except for the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Fox News. He said Republicans need a message that can survive distortions in what he called the liberal media.

He conceded the GOP doesn't do a good job of connecting with African-American, Latino and Asian-American voters.

In response to an audience question, he said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., would be a formidable presidential candidate in 2008.

"If Bush wins (next week), I think she's the most likely Democratic nominee," Gingrich said.

The bulk of Gingrich's speech focused on the American health care system, which he described as troubled, cumbersome and staggeringly complex.

His prescription for the system includes creating electronic versions of drug prescriptions, patient records and other medical documents. This will cut down on medical errors, he said.

"We will save lives and save money," he said.

At its core, the current health care system is centered on providers, and it needs to be refocused on consumers, Gingrich said. As one example, consumers should be able to check the prices of all available drugs for a particular ailment online.

"The real answer to the price of drugs is not Canada. The real answer is Travelocity," he said, referring to the Web site that allows users to comparison shop for hotels, airline tickets and other travel needs.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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