Pounding his target

September 15, 2004|By Jules Witcover

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. - The George W. Bush road show that pulled into Cereal City the other day clearly demonstrated the political reality of what John Kerry faces against an incumbent president who, unlike Mr. Kerry, has an unambiguous campaign message down pat.

Combining the trappings of the presidency and a sharply honed stump speech delivered with a brutally direct assault on Mr. Kerry as a flip-flopper, the president is a far more effective campaigner today than he was four years ago, or even before his renomination convention in New York.

At the convention, he was speaking to a broad national audience in pursuit of voters well beyond his conservative Republican base. On this week's swing through western Michigan by bus, the president pulled out all the stops before partisan voters who needed tickets for entry to the jam-packed baseball stadium of the Battle Creek Yankees.

Air Force One was nowhere in sight, but the two campaign buses that drove right into the stadium served just as well as symbols of presidential power, triggering roars of welcome as Mr. Bush climbed out and plunged into the crowd.

With no introduction at all from some fawning local politician, the president went right to his task with obvious relish. He hammered Mr. Kerry on his tongue-tied explanations of his votes authorizing Mr. Bush to use force in Iraq and then against the $87 billion to implement it.

Where the president at the convention simply ridiculed such Kerry positions, here in strongly Republican country before the cheering faithful he openly mocked the senator as a confused liberal, soft on national security and a proponent of more big government.

Attacking Mr. Kerry's ambitious health care proposal, Mr. Bush, with a smirk, asked the crowd: "What would you expect from a senator from Massachusetts? That's what you would expect - government takeover of health care with an enormous price tag."

But it was on the security issue that Mr. Bush sought to draw the clearest distinction between himself and Mr. Kerry. Alluding to the confusion sowed by his opponent's ambiguous observations on the war, he told the Battle Creek crowd: "I'm gonna tell people where I stand. I'm gonna tell people where I'm going to lead the country the next four years."

Again and again, President Bush came back to his role as commander in chief.

His "most solemn duty," he reminded the crowd, was to protect the country against a terrorist enemy determined to break America's will, adding, "This isn't going to happen on my watch." Mr. Bush is pursuing, he assured his listeners, "a clear and positive plan for a safer America."

In all this, the president had little to say about the mounting American casualties in Iraq, instead citing movement by the interim government toward elections and again defending the invasion as imperative against the "gathering threat" of Saddam Hussein's intentions, if not actual weapons of mass destruction.

"I believe when the president of the United States says something he must mean it," he intoned. In the face of any threat, he said, "I will defend America every time."

When Mr. Bush noted that only four members of the Senate voted for the war resolution but against the $87 billion authorization and two of them were Mr. Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, the crowd chanted: "Flip-flop! Flip-flop!" A young girl riding on her father's shoulders wore a T-shirt that proclaimed: "I'd pick boots over flip-flops any day."

Mr. Bush drew one of his loudest affirmations from the crowd with this: "The only thing clear about [Mr. Kerry's] position is if he had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power. America is safer with Saddam Hussein in a prison cell."

Such repeated pounding on Mr. Kerry's vulnerabilities underscores the imperative for the Democratic nominee to respond effectively in the approaching debates. While the incumbent's strategists low-ball his debating skills, he is priming himself on the campaign trail for a knockout punch.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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