Debates done, 2 candidates dig in for battle

Optimistic Bush plays down recent loss of lead, while confident Kerry derides president's record

Election 2004

October 15, 2004|By David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LAS VEGAS - Following the same flight path out of their final debate, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry arrived yesterday in the high-stakes battleground of Nevada to send different messages.

Bush declared the debates phase of the campaign over and dismissed talk of how his performances hurt his campaign, while Kerry responded to his opponent's oft-repeated use of a boxing taunt with one of his own: "Is that all you got?"

The president, his lead in the polls having evaporated in the past two weeks, seemed bent on displaying optimism and confidence. For the first time in three years, he wandered to the back of Air Force One to banter with reporters, putting an unworried face before the cameras.

"You know, the pundits and the spinners - they'll all have their opinion," Bush said of analysts who suggested his debate performances were lackluster. "There's only one opinion that matters, and that's the opinion of the American people on Nov. 2. I feel great about where we are."

But his attempt to focus beyond the debates seemed a tacit acknowledgement that he had lost them.

With more reason for optimism than Bush in the debates' wake, Kerry turned his attention to domestic issues with a blistering attack on Bush for what he said was a record of job losses, escalating health care costs and gas prices, and a financial squeeze on middle-class families.

Kerry taunted the president during a speech to the AARP. Responding to Bush's slogan - which paraphrases boxing great Joe Louis - that Kerry "can run from his record, but he cannot hide," the Democrat quoted boxing legend Muhammad Ali's famous line before he knocked out George Foreman during their 1974 heavyweight title match: "George, is that all you got?"

"Mr. President, after four years of lost jobs, after four years of families losing health coverage, after four years of falling incomes - is that all you've got?" Kerry said. "After four years of rising gas prices, rising health care prices and squeezed families - is that all you've got? After a campaign filled with excuses to justify a record and a campaign of false attacks on me - is that all you've got?"

Bush declined an invitation to speak to the AARP, the nonpartisan organization for seniors. Aides cited the president's crowded schedule and said Bush, though he was in the same city as the event, had a previous commitment to speak at a rally before jetting out of town.

The Medicare prescription-drug benefit Bush championed in Congress has not been popular with seniors, which suggests he might have received a less-than-enthusiastic welcome at the AARP event.

Meanwhile, the Bush campaign lashed out at Kerry for mentioning Vice President Dick Cheney's daughter, Mary, who is a lesbian, in response to a debate question about homosexuality.

In Florida, the vice president called Kerry "a man who will do and say anything to get elected." Cheney added that he was "not just speaking as a father here, although I am a pretty angry father."

"This is not a good man," Cheney's wife, Lynne, said at a late-night rally after the debate. "Speaking as a mom and a pretty indignant mom," she called Kerry's comment "a cheap and tawdry political trick."

Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, responded to Lynne Cheney in an interview with ABC Radio yesterday, saying she "overreacted" and "treated it as if it's shameful to have this discussion. I think that's a very sad state of affairs. ... I think that it indicates a certain degree of shame with respect to her daughter's sexual preferences."

Kerry defended himself yesterday against the criticism. "I love my daughters. They love their daughter," he said in a statement. "I was trying to say something positive about the way strong families deal with this issue."

The candidates began the final 19-day stretch of the campaign deadlocked in polls taken before voters had a chance to watch and digest the final debate Wednesday.

Kerry aides said the debates had elevated the senator's fortunes by improving his image among voters - especially swing voters - and convincing them he can defend the country. Now, they say, Kerry has a crucial opportunity to make his case on basic domestic issues to voters who have begun pulling away from Bush.

"These debates have done enormous good, and undone what has been an unprecedented assault on Senator Kerry" by Bush's campaign, said Mike Donilon, a senior Kerry adviser.

Bush aides said that despite the reaction to the debates, Kerry had articulated a domestic policy fraught with problems that Bush would emphasize in coming days. Yesterday, Bush said Kerry had not given specifics about how he would reform Social Security to ensure its solvency. Also, he called Kerry's health care plan "an overpriced albatross."

Bush's campaign chairman, Marc Racicot, said Kerry gained a "temporary" advantage from the debates, mostly from the first encounter in Miami last month. But, he said, Bush won the last two debates and has begun to claim back momentum.

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