Tuesday, September 28, 2004

WEST CHESTER, Ohio — President Bush yesterday signaled his strategy for this week’s debate with Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry by mocking the Massachusetts senator’s penchant for flip-flopping.

Mr. Kerry “could spend 90 minutes debating himself,” Mr. Bush said.

“It’s been a little tough to prepare for the debate because he keeps changing his positions, especially on the war,” Mr. Bush said with a chuckle during a campaign swing through southern Ohio. “He voted for the use of force in Iraq and then didn’t vote to fund the troops.

“He complained that we’re not spending enough money to help in the reconstruction of Iraq, and now he’s saying we’re spending too much,” he added. “He said it was the right decision to go into Iraq; now he calls it the wrong war.”

During practice sessions for Thursday’s debate in Coral Gables, Fla., the president worked at highlighting Mr. Kerry’s record of taking both sides on issues when sparring with Sen. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, who played the Democratic candidate, campaign officials said.

“It’s kind of funny,” White House communications director Dan Bartlett said of the president’s preparation. “He has to practice twice as hard.”

The White House continued to boost expectations for Mr. Kerry’s performance.

“The president knows he’s going up against the most skilled debater he has ever faced,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One.

“Senator Kerry has been preparing and practicing for this all his life, from the time he was in prep school to being a star debater for his Ivy League school, to being a prosecutor, to spending 20 years on the floor of the Senate debating the issues.”

He added: “I expect the president will do fine, but he’s up against a very formidable debater.”

Mr. Kerry yesterday made it clear that he did not appreciate being needled by the president.

“When U.S. soldiers are in harm’s way, the American people don’t want jokes and fantasy spin from their president; they want to hear the truth,” he said.

“I’ve had one position all the way, folks,” he said at a town-hall meeting in Wisconsin. “I thought we ought to stand up and hold Saddam Hussein accountable, but only if we did it the right way.”

Mr. Bush spent the day on a bus tour of southwestern Ohio, a region of the state where he “underperformed” four years ago, according to White House strategist Karl Rove. Although he said the president was “on the verge” of putting Ohio out of reach to Mr. Kerry, the president wasn’t taking any chances with a state that has lost large numbers of manufacturing jobs.

“I know there’s people still hurting in this state,” he told an audience in Springfield, Ohio. “And that’s why it’s important to continue to promote pro-growth, pro-small business, pro-farmer economic policies.”

Springfield is the seat of Clark County, which Mr. Bush lost to former Vice President Al Gore four years ago by 324 votes, or a half percentage point.

It was one of the areas where “we came up short in terms of what we needed in raw numbers and percentages,” Mr. Rove said.

From Springfield, the president rode a bus to West Chester in Butler County, where he was greeted by about 50,000 supporters. Mr. Bush carried Butler County in 2000 by a whopping 40,197 votes, or nearly a quarter of his statewide margin of victory of 165,019 votes.

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