Presidential candidates play politics of fear

Campaign: To scare up votes, each predicts doomsday scenarios if the other is elected.

Election 2004

October 21, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio - Lately, it seems, John Kerry is stealing a page from President Bush's campaign playbook.

After enduring months of speeches by Bush and television ads by his campaign that painted Kerry as a weak-kneed, out-of-the-mainstream liberal who would be a risky choice for voters - a picture his campaign aides have denounced as a caricature - the Democrat is drawing his own unflattering sketch of the president.

No longer content to use Bush's four-year record as grounds for criticism, Kerry is increasingly looking into his crystal ball to predict doomsday scenarios for a second Bush term.

"It's certainly a dose of their own medicine," said Mike McCurry, a senior Kerry campaign adviser.

In Kerry's portrayal, Bush is a miserly president who would privatize Social Security and cut benefits for senior citizens who depend on them, while helping his fat-cat friends get rich off new personal accounts that would bankrupt the program.

Bush is "asking you for another four years so that he can privatize the [Social Security] program and undo the social compact with our seniors," Kerry told an audience in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., this week.

In the senator's picture, Bush is a war-mongering president who pursues a ham-fisted foreign policy that would ultimately increase the likelihood that the government would have to reinstitute a military draft.

"With George Bush," Kerry told The Des Moines Register last week, "the plan for Iraq is more of the same, and the great potential of a draft."

In fact, Bush denies that he would do either. He denounced Kerry's accusations in an Associated Press interview as "shameless scare tactics."

On Tuesday, the president told an audience in St. Petersburg, Fla., that his opponent was distorting his plans in order to gain an electoral advantage - a protestation that Kerry has been making all year.

"With your help on Nov. 2, the people of America will reject the politics of fear," Bush said.

But fear has played a central role in this year's presidential campaign, and as Election Day approaches, both candidates are using it to try to gain the upper hand among voters.

Bush and his allies continue to forecast disaster if Kerry were to win. Vice President Dick Cheney seemed to suggest this year that a Kerry victory would increase the likelihood of another terrorist attack.

And in a new TV advertisement running in battleground states - dubbed "Risk" - an announcer, speaking over ominous music, accuses Kerry and his party of opposing wars and voting against funding for intelligence and weapons systems. It concludes: "John Kerry and his liberal allies, are they a risk we can afford to take today?"

Bush routinely says that Kerry would ask other countries' permission before taking military action to protect the United States. And the president rarely misses a chance to warn voters that if they elect Kerry, he'll raise their taxes.

Kerry denies those charges, too.

But in this campaign, each candidate has cast himself as a modern Cassandra warning of danger if his opponent is elected. There is good reason for the strategy. Opinion polls show that voters are anxious about the war in Iraq, the possibility of another terrorist attack and the health of the economy.

Campaign strategists say it is only fair for the candidates to address those worries in the last days of the race.

Making predictions about a second Bush term helps Kerry and his campaign "sharpen the definition of the choice" between the candidates, McCurry said.

"A lot of people are very nervous about the direction they see the country going. There's great anxiety about what four more years of President Bush would bring, and - stunning to us - they have not tried to fill in the blanks," McCurry said. "That gives us the opportunity to say, `Well, look, here's what the fear is of what four more years would be like under this president.'"

The approach can be a tricky one, bringing with it the risk that voters might be alienated by campaigns that they feel are playing on their anxieties.

"What you've got to be careful of is that it doesn't come off as typical campaign rhetoric and exaggeration," said Tony Coelho, a strategist for Al Gore's 2000 presidential bid. "In the debates, [Kerry] came off as very solid, very firm, with a command of the facts, and he's got to try to maintain that and not wander off into charges that seem far-fetched."

Kerry's attacks on Bush have met that test, Coelho said, because they are based on the president's own words. Kerry began making the Social Security charge, for example, only after an article appeared in The New York Times Magazine quoting Bush at a closed-door event as stating his intention to "come out strong" in a second term for privatizing the program.

The Bush campaign says the president never said that and that he does not intend to do it.

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