- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 5, 2004

Democratic officials and strategists have urged Sen. John Kerry not to allow himself to be pulled into a debate over Iraq, the war on terrorism and his Vietnam experiences, and focus his attention on the economy and jobs in the general election.

Acknowledging that the Democratic presidential nominee has lost support in the past month in a bitter battle with Vietnam veterans who challenged the veracity of his combat record and with the Bush campaign, which has attacked his national security votes in the Senate, these Democrats say Mr. Kerry must return to the party’s bread-and-butter issues that they say can turn his candidacy around.

“Remember James Carville’s line, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’ well, it’s the economy again, stupid,” says Mike Callaghan, the Democratic chairman of West Virginia, a battleground state that remains a tossup and where Mr. Kerry planned to campaign on Labor Day.

“I don’t want to see him pulled into the national security debate, because that it is not the driving issue for voters here. The economic issues, that’s what will drive the voters in this election,” Mr. Callaghan said in an interview. “I think Kerry’s lost some ground in West Virginia. The two conventions are done. Now it’s time to focus on the economy, health care and education.”

Mr. Kerry apparently has begun to take the advice he’s getting. He spent the day campaigning largely on economic issues in Ohio on Friday, a battleground state where the jobless rate was nearly 6 percent in July, a number that Mr. Kerry called “a record of failure.” It was his 14th trip to the state this year, though recent polls showed that the president has moved into a slight lead there.

Other Democrats say President Bush and his party would like nothing better than to keep the focus on the war on terrorism and Mr. Kerry’s defense record for the rest of the election, because polls show that is Mr. Bush’s strongest issue with voters.

“He needs to focus more on domestic issues. That’s where Bush is particularly vulnerable and where Kerry is particularly strong, and that is where swing and uncommitted votes are especially unhappy with Bush,” says Harold Ickes, a senior party strategist who was deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House.

“Kerry can’t ignore the commander in chief stuff, but that’s not where the election is going to be won or lost. I think he’s slipped a little in the last month, but the fundamentals are still very strong for the Democrats.”

These views are echoed by other Democrats around the country who are advising the Kerry campaign, according to party insiders. Their overall advice to the senator: “Don’t let Bush draw you into battling on his strongest ground. Keep hitting him on an underperforming economy and the need for more and better-paying jobs,” says a key Democratic official.

“His task now is to refocus his campaign on the bread-and-butter economic issues. They want to shift the argument to foreign affairs, national security and commander in chief issues. Kerry needs to shift the argument back to domestic issues,” Mr. Ickes says.

This advice comes in the wake of last week’s Republican convention, where the senator was hit by a barrage of attacks for his consistent votes against major weapons systems and intelligence funding and his ever-changing positions on the war in Iraq and other national security issues.

Those attacks have significantly cut into Mr. Kerry’s support, according to two newsmagazine polls. A poll conducted for Time magazine during the convention between Tuesday and Thursday night found, among other things, that if the election were held today, Mr. Bush would beat his Democratic opponent by 52 percent to 41 percent, with 3 percent of the vote for independent Ralph Nader.

While the poll underscored Mr. Bush’s continuing strength on national security issues — with 57 percent trusting the president to handle the war on terrorism, compared with 36 percent who trust Mr. Kerry — voters were split over the economy. Nearly half, 48 percent, approved of Mr. Bush’s handling of the economy, and 48 percent disapproved.

A poll taken for Newsweek magazine, released yesterday, disclosed almost identical findings.

But the jobs issue may be more difficult for Mr. Kerry to exploit after the Labor Department’s weekly employment report, showing that the economy created 144,000 more payroll jobs in August, boosting the total number of new jobs to nearly 1.7 million over the past 12 months. July employment gains were also revised upward to 73,000 from 32,000, and June’s number was revised to 96,000 from 78,000.

Manufacturing jobs, a key employment number in the big battleground states like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, also rose by 22,000, pushing the overall unemployment rate down one-tenth of a percentage point to 5.4 percent, below the average jobless rates of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, economic analysts said.

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