President Bush, stung by the erosion of his lead over Sen. John Kerry in post debate polls, has abruptly scheduled a major speech for tomorrow in hopes of halting Mr. Kerry’s momentum.
In a rare, last-minute alteration to the presidential schedule, Mr. Bush has scrapped a planned talk on medical liability and instead will give what the White House called a “significant speech” about the two central issues of the campaign — the war on terrorism and the economy.
The president is said to be eager to rebut Mr. Kerry’s attacks on such issues, especially those that came during Thursday’s presidential debate.
“There has been an attempt by the president’s opponent to launch false attacks and mislead the American people on these big priorities,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One. “There are some big differences facing the American people, and the president wants to highlight those differences.”
The Kerry campaign was delighted that the Massachusetts Democrat has forced the president into reactive mode.
Kerry spokesman Phil Singer ridiculed Mr. Bush’s decision to give a major speech, which will be delivered in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
“George Bush has spent the last few months resorting to half-truths on the stump. Now he’s going the whole way,” he said. “A president needs to be forthcoming and straightforward about his polices, and if the last few days are any indication, Wednesday’s speech will be neither.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush’s re-election strategists, reeling from a wave of weekend polls that showed Mr. Kerry pulling even with the president, were heartened by four new surveys, released yesterday, that show Mr. Bush still ahead by an average of five points.
Still, Bush officials tried to appear stoic about the new numbers by ABC News, the Pew Research Center, Rasmussen Reports and George Washington University.
“We don’t dance in the end zone, and we don’t cry in our beer,” said Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush campaign. “This race is basically even, which is where we thought it was going to be.”
Even Republicans who were alarmed by the erosion of the president’s lead in national polls took comfort in electoral-vote tallies that show Mr. Bush leading by a wide margin.
The nonpartisan Hotline, which is published online by National Journal magazine, yesterday said Mr. Bush was leading in 31 states that have a total of 292 electoral votes, or 22 more than the 270 necessary for victory. Mr. Kerry was leading in 16 states that have a total of 200 electoral votes.
When the tally is narrowed to include only states in which a candidate’s lead is outside the margin of error, Mr. Bush has locked up 22 states, with a total of 215 electoral votes. Mr. Kerry has locked up seven states, with a total of 119 electoral votes, according to the Hotline.
Republicans also took comfort in the internal dynamics of national polls that, in the aggregate, favored Mr. Kerry.
Gallup, for instance, released a poll over the weekend that showed both candidates tied at 49 percent after Thursday’s debate. Before the debate, Mr. Bush was ahead by eight points.
But even in the newer survey, the president had a 17-point lead over Mr. Kerry on the issue of the war against terrorism. He also retained leads over the Democrat in the handling of Iraq and the ability to be commander in chief.
On the other hand, Mr. Kerry gained the advantage on the economy, which is expected to figure prominently in the remaining two presidential debates. The margin of Americans who feel Mr. Kerry won the debate has grown from 53 percent to 37 percent immediately after the face-off, to 57 percent to 25 percent over the weekend, after widespread media coverage crediting the Democrat with the better performance.
Bush officials were pleased that the poll showed that likely voters, by a margin of 48 percent to 41 percent, expect Mr. Kerry to win the next debate. They hoped that would lower expectations for Mr. Bush, who had been favored to win the first debate, only to come up short in the expectations game.
The ABC News poll showed Mr. Bush enjoying an 18-point lead over Mr. Kerry on the issue of terrorism, which consumed much of Thursday’s foreign-policy debate.
The Pew Research Center poll, which was conducted after the debate, gave Mr. Bush a 25-point advantage on the question of which candidate is a strong leader. Furthermore, 48 percent of respondents said Mr. Kerry changes his mind too much to be a good commander in chief.
The latest Rasmussen Reports poll shows that although Mr. Kerry gained a point after the debate, Mr. Bush still leads by three points. The survey was based on 3,000 interviews since the debate.
Meanwhile, a poll released last night showed the president five points ahead of Mr. Kerry in the battleground state of New Hampshire. The poll was sponsored by television station WMUR and the University of New Hampshire.