In W.Va., Kerry hits back

Attack: Going on offense, the Democrat says President Bush is wrong for America.

Election 2004 -- Race For President

September 07, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

RACINE, W.Va. - Sen. John Kerry, battling a slide in the polls, unleashed a torrent of criticism against President Bush yesterday, telling mineworkers at a Labor Day rally in this swing state that the W in Bush's name stands for "wrong."

"Wrong choices, wrong judgment, wrong priorities, wrong direction for our country," Kerry told supporters, his voice echoing through a sun-soaked valley in the heart of coal country.

"The choice in this race is very simple, West Virginia. It's very simple, America. The choice is whether you want to continue to move in the wrong direction or whether you want to turn this country around."

Kerry, on a campaign trek that also took him to the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Ohio, was trying to slow Bush's momentum after the Republican convention, as the tight presidential race enters its final two months.

After nearly a month of playing defense against accusations that he lied about his Vietnam war record and flip-flopped on Iraq, Kerry sought to shift voters' attention to where Democrats hope it will be on Election Day: domestic problems that are afflicting depressed areas such as this tiny town.

On Bush's watch, Kerry said, jobs have been lost, health costs have risen, wealthy people have gotten tax breaks and schools have been undercut.

"It's very simple," said Kerry, who the Bush camp has criticized for his nuanced approach to policy issues. "If you liked these four years and you want four more years like that, then you go tell people to go out and vote for George Bush, because that's what you're going to get."

Standing before a crowd chanting his name and waving "Coal Country is Kerry Country" signs, Kerry also faulted Bush on the war in Iraq, saying that he would have "done everything differently" from the president.

"Of all of George Bush's wrong choices, the most catastrophic one is the mess in Iraq," Kerry said in a speech that was shorter and punchier than usual. Earlier, he told a voter at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania that he would try to get troops out of Iraq within four years.

Kerry's campaign has added a stable of veteran Democratic strategists for the crucial last stage of the contest, including several who worked for President Bill Clinton. Kerry and Clinton, who is recovering from heart bypass surgery, had a lengthy telephone strategy session over the weekend about how to revitalize the Massachusetts Democrat's campaign.

"The new folks were brought on board for the final push," said Allison Dobson, a Kerry campaign spokeswoman. She said the campaign would not change its tone or approach as a result of the new advisers.

But it was clear yesterday that Kerry - known for his tendency to do best when his campaign chances appear worst - was rolling up his sleeves for an aggressive eight weeks.

"You're going to see John Kerry really ready for the final stretch - he's ready to fight," Dobson said.

Some Democratic strategists say that Kerry can regain the momentum he has lost in recent weeks if he focuses on Bush's record as president, especially on domestic issues such as jobs and health care.

Opinion polls conducted since last week's Republican convention show Bush opening a lead over Kerry. But Kerry campaign strategists are taking heart from recent national surveys that show that a majority of voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction under Bush, which they believe gives Kerry an opening to sway undecided voters in key states.

That appeared to be Kerry's mission yesterday as he uttered the word wrong time and again and told a cheering crowd: "We're going to set this country on the right course on Nov. 2. ... It's time for a president who will lead America in a new direction in the right way."

Kerry's message seemed to resonate with supporters gathered here at the annual mineworkers picnic at John Slack Memorial Park.

"He'll steer us in the right direction," said Charlotte Perdue, 49, a bank worker. "We've had a lot of loss of jobs and companies go out of business. We can't take more of that."

Danny Carr, a coal miner from nearby Bloomingrose, said Kerry is "for the working people, for the middle class."

Carr's wife, Alice, a Head Start worker, says she doesn't like the looks of Kerry but "he'll be much better than Bush."

"He's just too, you know, aristocratic, or with his nose in the air," she said. "But he's toned it down a little bit and come down to the normal people."

Still, some supporters expressed concern that Kerry's efforts are falling flat in West Virginia, a state Bush won in 2000.

"I'm scared. The Democrats are just not conducting the kind of campaign they should. They need to take the gloves off," said Tom Easterly, a Kerry volunteer and former state senator.

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