Amid signs the presidential race is in a dead heat, President Bush targeted his campaign on the battleground state of Florida today, defending his record on Social Security, healthcare and even the shortage of flu vaccine from John F. Kerry's attacks.
For his part, Kerry has seized on the future of Social Security as a potent campaign issue, hammering on it all week in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.
"On Nov. 2, Social Security is on the ballot," he warned at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "A choice between one candidate who will save Social Security — and another who will undermine it."
At the first of three political rallies in western and central Florida, the president thanked "healthy Americans" for foregoing their annual influenza vaccination.
"I know there are some here who are worried about the flu season," Bush told several thousand supporters in a baseball stadium in St. Petersburg, a comment that responded to criticisms voiced in the state Monday by Kerry. Bush said the government is doing all it can to help senior citizens and children get their shots.
Florida, which decided the 2000 election in the president's favor, appears headed for another photo finish. A poll of the state conducted late last week by Strategic Vision showed Bush leading Kerry 49% to 46% — a result within the poll's 3 percentage point margin of error.
Political strategists warn, however, that polls of the state may not be accurate because of damage and disarray from four hurricanes in recent weeks, and there are signs the Bush campaign is concerned about the president's showing here. Last week, the campaign named a new state campaign co-chair. And the president has spent three of the last four days in Florida, and is planning more stops on Friday and Saturday.
"We were kept out of this state for six weeks because of the hurricane," Bush political strategist Karl Rove said during the third rally, a sprawling gathering of thousands of retirees at The Villages, a retirement community near Lady Lake, Fla. "We have to make up for a little lost time."
On a bus tour that ranged from the Gulf Coast to the state's soggy center, Bush accused Kerry of fomenting fear on a range of domestic concerns — a charge the Kerry campaign frequently aims at Bush in connection to terrorism.
"Instead of articulating a vision or positive agenda for the future, the senator is relying on a litany of complaints and old-style scare tactics," Bush said in St. Petersburg.
In particular, the president said the Massachusetts senator is trying to scare Americans into believing a second Bush term would ruin Social Security and bring back the draft.
"We will keep the promise of Social Security for all our seniors," Bush said in St. Petersburg. "We will not have a draft. We'll keep the all-volunteer army."
Before audiences heavily composed of retirees, Bush promised repeatedly that their Social Security benefits would not change under his plans for Social Security and accused Democrats of reviving an old "scare tactic."
In another sign the president may be on the defensive, Bush made a special point of discussing his support for the military, and at all three rallies, Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, were introduced by servicemen. Kerry has repeatedly charged Bush with failing to adequately support servicemen and their families.
"I want to thank the military families who are here today for their sacrifices," Bush said in St. Petersburg. "You can be certain of this: Your loved ones are answering one of the great calls of American history. They're defending our country against ruthless enemies. They're spreading freedom and hope."
On Iraq, Bush accused his opponent of being too inconsistent to lead the military.
"At a time of great threat to our country, at a time of great challenge in the world, the commander in chief must stand on principle, not on the shifting sands of political convenience," Bush said in New Port Richey.
Bush also discussed several issues of special concern in Florida. The president emphasized that he does not support offshore drilling for oil, which is unpopular in the state.
Kerry today accused his rival of launching an "an all-out assault on Social Security" with a plan to privatize the entitlement program that would jeopardize the financial security of senior citizens.
During a midday speech in eastern Pennsylvania, the Democratic candidate pressed his argument that Bush intends to privatize Social Security, a charge the Bush campaign has adamantly denied.
Kerry said that Bush used $509 million of surplus Social Security payroll contributions since taking office to pay for his tax cuts, and warned that his plan to allow younger workers to create private retirement accounts would gut the program.
"His four-year spending spree on tax giveaways for millionaires has undermined the hopes of middle-class families and it has put Social Security on a dangerous road," he told hundreds of supporters. "Now he's asking for another four years so he can privatize the program, and undo the social compact with our seniors."
"No! No!" the audience chanted.
To support his charge, Kerry referred to a recent New York Times Magazine article that quoted the president telling donors that he plans to "come out strong" after his reelection with an effort to privatize Social Security.
The Bush campaign dismissed the account as "made up" and said Bush has no intention of privatizing the program.
Spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry's "head-in-the-sand approach to Social Security would bankrupt the system with a $10-trillion funding gap."
"He has advocated changes to the system in the past, but has now decided that it is more in his political interest to scare seniors," Schmidt said.
Kerry called the program "a sacred compact between generations" that guarantees that "if you work hard and if contribute to your country, then you can retire with a level of both decency and dignity."
"Imagine if that was taken away or put at great risk?" he asked. "Imagine if your parents or your grandparents had to work on the factory floor long into their 70s, or even their 80s?... Imagine if people had to sell their house that they grew up in to pay for their food or their medicine, or just because they got sick?
"This is the reckless course on which George Bush has placed this nation," he concluded. "We have to change it."
Kerry promised to strengthen Social Security and cut the federal deficit through fiscal discipline, saying that every budget he would send to Congress would include details about how to pay for each proposal.
He also said he would cut "wasteful government spending and bloated government contracts," pledging to slash at least 100,000 federal contractors and consolidate various statistical and export departments that have overlapping responsibilities.
Kerry also said he would ask Congress to grant him the line item veto, which he said he would use to "slice pork off the federal budget
Gold reported from Pennsylvania, Reynolds from Florida.