Monday, June 14, 2004

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — John Kerry returned to the campaign trail yesterday after a weeklong hiatus out of deference to the national grieving over the death of former President Ronald Reagan.

Last week’s break from political events — the longest cease-fire this year — also was expedient, because Mr. Reagan’s funeral swamped political coverage all week.

But by yesterday, Mr. Kerry was ready to come out swinging against President Bush on the state of the nation’s economy, an area in which polls show Mr. Bush doing poorly.

“We’re here to put America back to work,” Mr. Kerry, bronzed and relaxed, said to a group of union workers on a windy airport tarmac here yesterday. “We’re here to make sure that Americans get a job where if they work hard, they can actually pay their bills.”

It was the start of a two-week tour through battleground states such as Ohio, Michigan and Colorado to talk about “the worst job recovery since the Great Depression” and promise voters health care coverage as a “right.”

“A central element of John Kerry’s strength, and of George Bush’s weakness, remains the economy,” Kerry pollster Mark Mellman said yesterday. “Americans do not see real improvement in the nation’s economy.”

The Massachusetts Democrat will focus on a range of economic issues, according to a memo Mr. Mellman sent campaign workers yesterday. Those topics include the outsourcing of jobs, the historically low-interest rates and the rising costs of health care and college tuition.

Mr. Bush, crediting his substantial tax cuts, has tried focusing voters’ attention on the improving economy. In recent months, unemployment has dropped, inflation remains flat and consumer spending and the stock market have risen.

Voters, according to several polls, have hardly noticed.

Some Republicans grouse that Mr. Bush and his re-election campaign have done a poor job highlighting the improving economy, much less tying it to the Bush tax cuts. And if the Kerry campaign has noticed, it’s not giving the current occupant of the White House any credit.

“Despite the administration’s efforts to trumpet an economic turnaround, voters believe the U.S. economy remains mired in deep trouble,” Mr. Mellman said.

The campaign pointed to a poll conducted late last month showing that two-thirds of Americans giving a negative evaluation of the economy, a continued decline from earlier this year when the economy actually was worse.

The polls did not show, however, the degree to which voters’ assessments were shaped by the negative attacks on the economy by Mr. Kerry and other Democrats in the past six months.

“Americans feel squeezed between prices that are rising and incomes that are not,” said Mr. Mellman, hopeful of tagging Mr. Bush with the same “It’s the economy, stupid” label that sank his father during the 1992 election.

Voters “believe that John Kerry will deal with these economic problems while George Bush is focused exclusively on matters overseas,” he said.

Last week’s break from campaigning also allowed the campaign time to fine-tune more than just its message of economic despair.

Mr. Kerry took off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport yesterday in a freshly touched-up campaign plane after additional American flags were painted on the sides last week.

While in New Jersey, Mr. Kerry took a helicopter last night to the home of international rocker Jon Bon Jovi to raise money. Before leaving for the soiree, he said, “Jon Bon Jovi and I have a lot in common.

“Jon Bon Jovi plays the guitar, I like to play the guitar. Jon Bon Jovi wears a leather jacket, I like to wear a leather jacket,” Mr. Kerry said. “Jon Bon Jovi was one of the 50 most beautiful people in People magazine, I like to read People magazine.”

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