Kerry visits Capitol as race heats up

Democrats plot strategy as Republicans criticize senator's voting record

March 12, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - John Kerry moved to consolidate support among Democrats yesterday in his first visit to Capitol Hill since becoming his party's presumptive presidential nominee as congressional leaders in both parties assumed more prominent roles in the increasingly bitter race for the White House.

As fellow Democrats rallied around him, Kerry dismissed Republican demands that he apologize for calling his GOP critics "crooked" and "lying" in off-the-cuff remarks - captured Wednesday by an open microphone - and instead intensified his criticism of President Bush.

Kerry spent much of the day huddled in closed-door meetings with Democratic lawmakers to plot strategy and coordinate themes for the election year, even as congressional Republicans staged their most organized public effort to discredit him.

"I have no intention whatsoever of apologizing for my remarks," Kerry told reporters after meeting with Senate Democrats. "George Bush doesn't have a record to run on; he has a record to run away from, and that's what they're doing."

Kerry said his comments, made in Chicago, were directed at "a Republican attack squad that specializes in trying to destroy people and be negative."

Those comments came on the day that Bush, lagging behind Kerry in national polls after a months-long primary season that featured Democrats hammering at his record, unveiled his first negative ads against his prospective opponent. The Republican National Committee pegged Kerry as a negative campaigner, releasing an e-mail to supporters headlined, "Kerry Election Strategy Clear: Smear."

Republicans, who seized on Kerry's visit as an opportunity to denounce his proposals and highlight what they called his flip-flops on national security matters, condemned his Wednesday comments.

"He's getting off on the wrong foot in this campaign, name-calling," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois, noting with anger that the comments were made in his back yard. If the remarks were meant for him, Hastert said Kerry "will have his upcomepance coming," bungling the threat.

Top Republicans, who scheduled a meeting and news conference to coincide with Kerry's meetings on Capitol Hill, criticized his voting record and described him as a typical liberal Democrat.

With a new, apparently more bitter phase opening in the race for the White House, congressional leaders in both parties sought yesterday to show that they intend to play significant prominent roles in the campaign, both in building up their candidates and in tearing down the opposition.

`Rapid response' teams

Democrats discussed their plans to use "rapid response" teams - groups of lawmakers, each assigned to handle specific policy issues or political matters - to reinforce Kerry's message and defend him against Republican attacks. At the same time, Kerry unveiled a new "D-Bunker" Web site, with the stated purpose of helping Democrats "beat back the right-wing smear machine."

On a day of photo opportunities with crowds of Democrats, Kerry also took time out for a private meeting with his one-time rival, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who has been mentioned prominently as a potential vice presidential running mate. Kerry also joined Edwards for a gathering with Edwards' supporters in Washington last night.

Kerry also moved yesterday to shore up support among minority groups in Congress, meeting with the Black and Hispanic Caucuses.

Kerry "made it clear that this will be an ongoing relationship," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Cummings said he and South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn will each hold a "high-level policy position" in Kerry's campaign.

GOP fires back

Republicans were especially eager to match Democrats' show of unity with their own display of resolve. They sought to counter the image Democrats were promoting - of Kerry as a conquering hero returning to Washington to right Bush's wrongs - with their own negative depiction of him.

"Our team," Kingston said, "is ready to push back."

Yesterday's meeting was their most concerted effort to date to undercut Kerry. Sitting around a table in the ornate Lincoln Room off Hastert's office, the Republicans took turns beating up on the Massachusetts senator for his proposals on taxes and spending, which they claimed would raise taxes by $900 billion, and his opposition to Bush's energy bill.

The Senate's schedule yesterday - debate on the Republican-written budget - added some fodder to Republicans' criticisms of Kerry's positions. Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said it was "ironic" that Kerry had returned on a day when the Senate was moving to preserve "fiscal discipline" and Bush's tax cuts, because Kerry is proposing to reverse a large chunk of them.

But Kerry left Capitol Hill before a series of votes last night on Democratic amendments to increase spending - including one by Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes to boost funds for firefighters - all of them unsuccessful.

Democrats were eager to emphasize how unified they were behind the party's likely standard bearer.

"There is a great enthusiasm, a great energy and an incredible unity" among Democrats, said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, as senior Democrats flanked their colleague and nodded their approval. "We're with him all the way to Election Day."

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