Flush from debate, the candidates take fight to swing states

Polls show Bush, Kerry locked in a virtual tie

Election 2004

October 10, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Hours after their testy second debate, President Bush and rival Sen. John Kerry kept relentlessly jabbing at each other's records yesterday as they bolted through swing states. The president said Kerry must think people are "on another planet" to believe the Democrat has a clear position on Iraq, while the senator hammered at Bush on health care and job losses as he tried to keep the focus on issues at home.

With polls showing the candidates locked in a virtual tie just more than three weeks before the election, the campaigns are scrambling for ways to woo pools of undecided voters in battleground states. Bush and Kerry jumped back on the stump as they prepare to reconvene Wednesday night in Arizona for their final debate, an event to focus solely on domestic issues.

Long convinced that the senator would command an advantage over Bush on domestic matters, aides to Kerry said they were preparing an onslaught of criticism of Bush's record on health care and jobs in coming days, trying to convince voters that the president looks out predominantly for wealthier Americans. If the debate in St. Louis was any indication, Bush seemed to hold his own with Kerry when sparring over the domestic agenda, painting his opponent as a spend-happy liberal.

Dissecting the debate

Yesterday, the candidates both did their best to dissect statements the other made in Friday's debate. Bush cast Kerry as weak-kneed on foreign policy and hungry for tax increases. Kerry portrayed the president as a leader who refuses to be candid with Americans about the violence in Iraq. Boosters for both men claimed victory in the St. Louis debate, even as analysts and instant polls taken afterward suggested no clear-cut winner.

Bush chuckled yesterday as he recalled remarks by Kerry. "With a straight face, he said, `I've only had one position on Iraq,'" the president told supporters in Waterloo, Iowa. "I could barely contain myself. He must think we've been on another planet."

Earlier, at a fund-raising breakfast in St. Louis, Bush said that "in the spring of 2003, as I ordered the invasion of Iraq, Senator Kerry said it was the right decision. Now, he says it's the wrong war. And he tries to tell us he's had only one position. Who is he trying to kid? He can run, but he cannot hide."

He also scoffed at Kerry for vowing not to increase taxes on the middle class. "Senator Kerry was asked to look into the camera and promise he would not raise taxes for anyone who earns less than $200,000 a year," Bush said. "The problem is, to keep that promise, he would have to break almost all of his other ones."

Kerry, speaking to a hyped-up, friendly audience outside Cleveland, said, "The choice for America could not really have been more clear that it was last night." That choice, he said, is between "four more years of the wrong choices, or four years of beginning to move America in a direction that creates jobs, creates health care, puts America's respect back where it ought to be."

Kerry poked fun at Bush's much-maligned facial expressions from their first debate, saying the president had reason to scowl in St. Louis. "The reason I thought he was making all those scowling faces was because he saw the latest job numbers," Kerry said, referring to a jobs report from the government Friday saying fewer jobs than expected were created in September. Bush aides took a more positive view of the numbers, saying the report showed consistent job growth over time.

Referring back to a moment when Bush cut off the moderator Friday to lambaste Kerry for saying that few countries are helping the war effort in Iraq, the senator said he was "a little worried" because "I thought the president was going to attack Charlie Gibson."

Flurry of bad news

As Bush and Kerry met in St. Louis, the president was facing a recent spate of bad news. The former civilian head of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, had said Bush did not provide enough troops to secure Iraq after the war. And a new CIA report concluded that Iraq has not possessed weapons of mass destruction at any time in the last decade, deflating a major argument Bush had made for war.

Yesterday, the backdrop for Bush seemed somewhat brighter. In Afghanistan, where Bush ordered a military invasion after the Sept. 11 attacks to oust the Taliban regime, voters swarmed to the polls to choose a new president. The election seemed mostly a success, though it brought complaints of fraud and some violence .

Bush offered a positive reaction, taking credit for pushing Afghanistan toward a historic democratic election. "A marvelous thing is happening in Afghanistan - freedom is powerful," the president said.

According to Bush, a 19-year-old woman who had fled her country during its years of civil war had returned home and was the first to vote. "She is voting in this election because the United States of America believes that freedom is the almighty God's gift to each man and woman in this world," Bush said.

New attack lines

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