Sunday, October 03, 2004

Domestic Issues Pushed to Front of Campaigns

The New York Times
October 3, 2004

Domestic Issues Pushed to Front of Campaigns

WASHINGTON, Oct. 2 - With a barrage of new advertisements and speeches, Senator John Kerry's aides are moving to shift the battle with President Bush to what they said was stronger ground - domestic policy - as the two men head into a second debate that is expected to focus on the economy, job creation and health care.

Mr. Bush's aides said they would continue to try to anchor the presidential campaign to foreign policy and national security, and the president on Saturday, campaigning in Ohio, escalated his attacks on what he said was Mr. Kerry's vacillating foreign policy.

But the aides said they would gladly engage Mr. Kerry on domestic issues as well. The president's weekly radio address on Saturday was devoted to tax cuts, and Mr. Bush will fly to Iowa on Monday to sign into law the latest round of cuts.

Mr. Kerry's campaign upended its menu of television advertisements on Saturday, replacing spots attacking Mr. Bush on Iraq and national security with ones in which Mr. Kerry talks about health care and job creation, while attacking Mr. Bush as a tool of "the powerful and well-connected."

And Mr. Kerry delivered a speech on domestic issues in Orlando on Saturday morning that aides said was intended to usher in this new phase of his campaign, denouncing Mr. Bush as "the first president to lose jobs in our country in 72 years."

Mr. Kerry will hold a town meeting in Ohio on Sunday on the outsourcing of jobs and is planning speeches on health care early in the week.

"We know that there are a lot of people out there who are more worried about their jobs and paying their health care bills than worrying about what's going on the other side of the world," said Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry adviser. "This is not brain surgery."

After weeks of growing increasingly confident about victory, some Republicans said in interviews that they were concerned that Mr. Kerry's showing at the debate - combined with images that have been repeatedly televised showing Mr. Bush frowning and fidgeting as his opponent criticized him - might have tilted the landscape, and that Mr. Bush might once again have a fight on his hands.

Even Republicans said Mr. Kerry had gained ground in Thursday's debate on foreign policy, though aides to both campaigns said it was unclear what long-term effect that would have. Mr. Bush's senior advisers argued that the debate would not be enough to overcome what they described as voter concerns about Mr. Kerry stirred by six months of Republican attacks, and said they were unconcerned about his effort to move the discussion to domestic issues.

"We think we are on firm ground on domestic policy and on foreign policy," said Mr. Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman.

Not by coincidence, this shift in emphasis by Mr. Kerry comes as he and Mr. Bush head for a second debate, on Friday in St. Louis, in which the candidates will be questioned by an audience of voters, and which is expected to include a heavy focus on domestic issues.

That morning, the government will issue the last set of unemployment figures before the election. And on Tuesday in Cleveland, the two vice-presidential candidates will debate, and aides to Senator John Edwards, the Democrat, said he hoped to keep the focus on domestic issues in his only debate with Vice President Dick Cheney.

This is hardly the first time that Mr. Kerry's advisers have sought to gain the advantage in what has been a long tug-of-war with the White House over whether the campaign should be fought over domestic issues or national security. Mr. Kerry's advisers acknowledged that he had been largely unsuccessful at this effort for much of the year, in no small part because of the spiral of violence in Baghdad.

And some Democrats questioned whether it made sense for Mr. Kerry to try to turn the subject away from Iraq at a time that continuing violence there was raising doubts among some voters about Mr. Bush's credentials to manage foreign policy crises.

But Mr. Kerry's aides and Congressional Democrats argued that Thursday's presidential debate - confined to foreign policy issues at the insistence of Mr. Bush's aides - gave Mr. Kerry credibility on this subject, allowing him to pivot to the critique of Mr. Bush on the home front that Mr. Kerry has long thought is his path to victory.

Mr. Bush's senior aides said that no matter what Mr. Kerry did, the president would continue to challenge his foreign policy fortitude, seizing in particular on Mr. Kerry's suggestion in the debate that he might not engage in a pre-emptive war without putting it to a "global test."

Mr. Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, described the remark as "a blunder," adding, "It was an insight into his foreign policy soul."

"Look, does he want a continuing dialogue about these things?" Mr. Rove continued. "No. But we'll pin him down. We'll keep pounding him."

The positioning came as both sides sought to measure the lasting impact, if any, of a debate in which Mr. Kerry offered what even Republicans described as a crisp and articulate case against the president. With a handful of exceptions - Mr. Rove being chief among them - there appeared to be a consensus among both parties that Mr. Kerry's performance had at the least jimmied open a window that Democrats feared had been closing on his candidacy.

At the same time, a number of Republicans said that they were worried by what they called a lackluster debate performance by Mr. Bush, and television images of the president grimacing as his rival challenged his handling of the war in Iraq and threats of terrorism at home.

"I was yelling at the television set," said one Republican associate of Mr. Bush, who said he did not want to be identified, describing his distress with Mr. Bush's performance. An administration official, speaking anonymously because he also did not want to be identified as critical of Mr. Bush's debate performance, said he had been astounded to see Mr. Bush repeatedly display on television a disdainful look that was familiar to people who work with him in the White House, but which aides, in preparing him for the debates, warned against.

And Paul M. Weyrich, the conservative organizer, wrote in his newsletter: "I reluctantly agree with overnight polls that suggest that, by a plurality, voters believe that Senator John Kerry won his debate with President Bush Thursday night. Both candidates did well. But Senator Kerry got away with murder and that is why it is frustrating."

Aides to both campaigns said they were waiting over the weekend to see how the perception of the debate settled in with the public, as well as the first full-fledged opinion polls.

A Newsweek magazine poll conducted after the debate showed Mr. Kerry in a statistical tie with Mr. Bush. Earlier Newsweek polls had shown Mr. Bush with a clear, if modest, edge.

Instant polls done the evening of the debate, found that most viewers said Mr. Kerry had won, but Republicans were quick to note that there was no immediate sign that he had chipped into what most polls show as a lead by Mr. Bush.

"There are two clear story lines," said Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster. "One is that that Kerry did very well in the debate. The more important story line is that it didn't affect anyone's opinion."

Mr. Rove said: "It's like his convention speech. I remember all the hubbub about this being a terrific convention speech. And in the end, it did not serve him well."

But Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said that Mr. Bush, as a result of the debate, was now vulnerable in a way he had not been before.

"This was going to be their knockout punch, their issue, the chance to make their strongest case with the people, and it didn't happen," Mr. Durbin said, adding: "I think there will be a momentum shift now."

And even some Republicans said that Mr. Kerry had at the least ended any hope Mr. Bush had of a quick and easy victory.

"I don't think anything changed, but I think Kerry kept himself in the race," said Representative Peter T. King, a New York Republican, adding, "I think the American people are making a distinction, and they accept that Kerry is more skillful on his feet, but they still trust the president more."

Gary Bauer, a conservative Republican who ran for president in 2000, said, "I think Kerry did well enough to prevent the possibility of a meltdown, which I think he was facing."

Interviews with Democrats suggested that Mr. Kerry's supporters who had been dispirited by the continued reports of upheaval in the Kerry campaign were invigorated by their candidate's performance.

"For the first time in concise terms he laid out a clear alternative path," Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, said.

""Several Republicans said they had hoped that Mr. Bush, after having forced the first debate to be fought out on foreign policy, would have effectively squashed Mr. Kerry's challenge by now. Whether that goal was realistic or not, Republicans said there seemed little hope of that before the last debate is held in Arizona on Oct. 13.

"We had him down and we had our foot on his throat," Ron Kaufman, who served as political adviser to Mr. Bush's father, said of Mr. Kerry. "He got up, but he's still wounded."

Todd S. Purdum and Robin Toner contributed reporting for this article.