Candidates escalate their televised war

Commercials, speeches push security as top issue

Election 2004

October 23, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene | Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. - President Bush declared security the overriding issue in the presidential race yesterday and charged that John Kerry cannot see the dangers facing the nation, as the campaigns engaged in a rapid-fire television ad war over who could best protect Americans.

"All progress on every other issue depends on the safety of our citizens," Bush said here in a retooled stump speech, which sought to sway social conservatives with a focus on his agenda for families.

"When it comes to your security, the choice in this election could not be clearer. You cannot lead our nation to decisive victory, on which the security of every American family depends, if you do not see the true dangers of the post-September the 11th era," Bush said. Kerry, he added, "has a September 10th point of view."

Kerry, working to boost his standing among female voters, a disproportionately undecided group, topped a speech on women's issues with a strong defense of his fitness to be commander in chief.

"We will hunt down, capture or kill the terrorists," Kerry told a predominantly female audience gathered in a University of Wisconsin performance hall in Milwaukee. "I guarantee you I will leave no stone unturned to protect this country I love. I will protect it as president of the United States of America."

Both candidates were trying to bolster their standing among specific swing voting groups where they historically have had an edge, but which polls show are still in play just 11 days before Election Day.

But it was a TV ad unveiled by the Bush campaign that got more attention than either candidate's oratory, at a moment in the contest when both campaigns are relying heavily on such spots to communicate with voters in swing states.

The ad shows a pack of wolves stalking through an idyllic forest, as an announcer accuses Kerry of voting for intelligence budget cuts "so deep that they would have weakened America's defenses."

"And weakness," the voice says, as the wolves move closer, "attracts those who are waiting to do America harm."

Kerry's aides criticized Bush for using the frightening images. Tad Devine, a top Kerry campaign media adviser, said the unconventional ad - which is reminiscent of past hair-raising presidential campaign spots such as a 1984 ad by Ronald Reagan's campaign in which a grizzly bear represented the Soviet Union - was a sign that Bush could not make his own appeals to voters.

"They cannot take the single strongest thing that you have in political advertising, which is your candidate, and allow him to appear in his own ads. I think that says an awful lot about the problems the president is having right now connecting with voters," Devine said.

The Democrat's campaign shot back with its own ad with animal symbols - with Bush being played by an ostrich with its head in the sand and Kerry represented by a soaring bald eagle.

"To make America safe, we can no longer go it alone in the world," Kerry says in the ad, in which he promises to "find and kill the terrorists" and maintain a strong military while rebuilding alliances with other nations.

Kerry made a direct appeal to women in a speech that tied his domestic plans - raising the minimum wage, expanding access to and lowering the cost of health insurance, increasing education funding and balancing the federal budget - to women's day-to-day lives.

"We believe that the middle class is the backbone of this country - and that hard-working women are the bedrock of our families in America," Kerry said. "Women deserve more than false assurances and empty promises from a president."

National polls show that Kerry has an edge over the president among women, who have sided with Democrats in presidential elections in the past decade. But the gender gap in his favor is not nearly as large as those enjoyed by Al Gore (11 percent) or Bill Clinton (16 percent when he ran for re-election). And with studies showing that women make up about 60 percent of undecided voters, Kerry's aides say he could do better with the bloc.

"It's an opportunity rather than a problem," said Stanley Greenberg, whose Democracy Corps poll conducted Oct. 20-21 found Kerry leading Bush among women, 51 percent to 46 percent.

So Kerry turned on the charm during his speech yesterday, mocking Bush for saying during the first debate that being president is "hard work."

The president "might learn something about how, after day after day after day, the women of this country juggle so much with grace and with strength," Kerry said. "What you do every day - now that is hard work."

Bush, courting religious conservatives here, said he and Kerry are "miles apart" on values, and he ripped the Democrat's record, including his opposition to a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman and to a ban on a late-stage procedure opponents call "partial-birth abortion." The president said the Democrat was part of a "far-left minority."

The president delivered his speech in a part of this battleground state where there is a large Catholic population.

David Greene reported from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and Canton, Ohio. Julie Hirschfeld Davis was in Milwaukee and Reno, Nev.

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