Monday, October 18, 2004

With the race for the presidency entering the final fortnight, each candidate has narrowed the focus of his campaign to what he thinks is a winning strategy.

President Bush will pound Democratic Sen. John Kerry as being too liberal for the tastes of mainstream voters on domestic issues and lacking a true understanding of how the United States must conduct the war on terror.

Mr. Kerry, reaching out to undecided voters and independents, has shifted his focus away from the war in Iraq toward domestic issues, portraying the president as someone who “did nothing” to help strengthen the economy and create jobs and will destroy Social Security in his second term.

The Kerry campaign has released a new ad based on comments attributed to Mr. Bush in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine that if re-elected he will “come out strong” for “privatization of Social Security.”

The quickly assembled TV spot will air in battleground states, which have shrunk from 17 to about nine, including Florida, where the Democrats think the ad will have an impact with the state’s large senior-citizen population.

“They want to hide the January surprise,” Kerry strategist Bob Shrum said in a conference call with reporters yesterday. “George Bush finally admitted he wants to privatize Social Security in a second term. I think seniors have a reason to be afraid of that.”

The candidate himself made prominent mention of Social Security on the campaign trail yesterday. At an appearance in Ohio, Mr. Kerry said a Social Security proposal would be Mr. Bush’s “January surprise,” and while stumping in Florida, he said: “I will never privatize Social Security, I will never cut benefits, and I will never raise the retirement age.”

Mr. Bush has made letting younger workers invest a portion of their Social Security taxes into private accounts a key point of his recent stump speeches. Sensitive to the coming attacks, he told those who attended his rallies in Florida on Saturday not to be scared by Democratic tactics on this issue.

“You are going to get your checks,” Mr. Bush said.

He has been careful not to use any version of the word “privatization,” and the campaign says the comments attributed to Mr. Bush were “third-hand” and not a direct quote.

Mr. Shrum disputed the notion that the Democrats are using scare tactics on this issue, much as they have been accused by Republicans of scaring seniors about Medicare benefits.

“We’re not trying to scare Americans; we’re trying to tell seniors the truth,” Mr. Shrum said.

The Kerry campaign’s focus on domestic issues — and the votes of senior citizens — can be found in another ad produced over the weekend about the shortage of flu shots.

The ad criticizes Mr. Bush for relying on vaccines from Britain, which ended up becoming contaminated.

“It’s a George Bush mess,” the ad concludes. “It’s time for a new direction.”

Bush campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Devenish nearly laughed at the ad, saying it’s a sign of desperation.

“The Kerry campaign has a scorched-earth strategy, where they rip from the headlines for their daily message,” she said. “It’s like an episode of ‘Law & Order.’ You get a new one every week, because they still haven’t figured out what to run on.”

Both campaigns, judging from their travel schedules, think the race will come down to which man wins Florida, just as it did in 2000. Most recent polls give the president a slight edge.

Mr. Kerry held a rally in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last night and has three events scheduled for today. Mr. Bush has an event in New Jersey this morning, then attends three events in Florida today and tomorrow.

Bush campaign senior political adviser Karl Rove said, however, that the event in New Jersey is indicative of Mr. Kerry’s continued weakness in states that he should have wrapped up by now. He pointed to a poll released last week by Fairleigh Dickinson University that has the race at a tie, 46 percent for each.

“This is a state in play because from a lot of houses in New Jersey, you could see the Twin Towers on September 11,” Mr. Rove told reporters with the president in Florida on Saturday.

“It has made them more sensitive about who can fight the war on terror in the years ahead,” he said.

The Republican National Convention, held in New York last month, also gave New Jersey voters “positive information” about Mr. Bush that is still lingering in their minds.

Mr. Bush is delivering what is billed by the campaign as a major address on the war on terror today and will stump in rural areas of Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota in the coming days to talk about health care and continue to pin the liberal label on Mr. Kerry.

Miss Devenish said the campaign is pleased with how the race is shaping up in the last two weeks, because polls show that Mr. Kerry has failed to pick up significant momentum after the debates and is now battling Mr. Bush on his turf and on his messages — especially the question of who will fight a more effective war on terror.

“That’s where we started, and it’s where we ended up,” Miss Devenish said. “He’s looking back at that period [before the September 11 attacks], and it’s clear that he doesn’t understand.”

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