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Bush Hits Campaign Trail, Shadowed by Democrats

Times Staff Writer

BANGOR, Maine -- One television commercial hammers at the theme of corporate corruption. A second draws attention to pension worries and the loss of jobs in the economy over the last two years.

Each was devised to shadow President Bush during the final two weeks of the fall campaign, offering an electronic presence for the Democratic Party as he brings the mantle of his office into some of the most closely fought races.

On Tuesday, Bush and the Democrats were focused on two House contests, one in the outer ring of suburbs southwest of Philadelphia and the other a blue-collar, rural and struggling mill-town district that cuts across the northern swath of Maine.

Bush brought the White House entourage first to Downingtown, Pa., campaigning for Republican Jim Gerlach, a state senator running for an open seat against Democrat Dan Wofford, son of a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Harris Wofford. Political analysts give Gerlach a slight edge.

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In Bangor, Bush was trying to help Republican Kevin Raye, who is seeking an open seat against Mike Michaud, the state Senate president. Analysts rate this race a tossup.

While in Maine, Bush also touted U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican favored to win reelection.

Although Bush’s precise schedule is changing each day as new polls determine where his political services may be most needed, he plans to devote nine days during the next two weeks to campaign appearances. And while he does that, the Democrats plan to run a series of television commercials in the communities he visits so that his message is countered with the advertising paid for by the Democratic National Committee.

The duel for attention stems from the high stakes in the Nov. 5 vote. For one of the few times in U.S. history, both chambers of Congress are clearly up for grabs--the Republicans control the House by just six seats, the Democrats control the Senate by a single seat.

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The first Democratic commercials were unveiled in connection with Tuesday’s travel.

One shows a young man at home, circa 1955, about to start his first day at work. His wife asks if he is ready for the job and he replies excitedly, “Ready as I’ll ever be.”

It morphs into the present, the young man now old but also starting a new job. His wife asks whether he is ready. “Ready as I’ll ever be,” he says wearily.

In depicting a senior citizen forced to start over again, the ad notes that the U.S. economy has lost about $175 billion in savings and 2 million jobs over the last two years.

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The second commercial features a senior citizen telling his wife: “I trusted my bosses and their accountants, and our savings are gone.” The next scene shows a fictitious corporate executive telling a congressional hearing: “Again, I’m taking the 5th Amendment.”

The announcer says: “Overcoming years of Republican opposition to tough corporate responsibility laws wasn’t easy. It took Democrats. They stood up and said, ‘Enough.’ ”

The commercials’ themes reflect the Democratic effort to turn the voting public’s attention to domestic issues in general, and the economy in particular, while the possibility of war with Iraq remains front-page news.

Their impact as elections approach is uncertain. Democrats argue the domestic concerns will benefit the party, increasing its Senate majority and winning it control of the House. But Republicans say the Democrats are misreading the public’s mood.

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“The public is clearly anxious this year. But they’re not angry. And there’s a big difference,” Ken Mehlman, the White House political director, said Monday. “The public clearly has concerns about the economy, but those concerns are not being necessarily taken out on public perceptions about the president.”

Bush, though, has made a point in his recent campaign appearances to express concerns about the economy. The president stressed that, in his view, “the foundations for growth are strong--interest rates low, inflation is low, we’ve got the highest productivity in the world among our workers and our farmers and our ranchers.” But he added: “Still, too many people can’t find a job. So I look forward to working with Congress to expand jobs opportunities.”

In Maine, the Democrats’ private polling has found that worries about the nation’s future are forming an undercurrent that often works against an incumbent party.

According to a Democratic poll, 50% of those surveyed say the country is on the “wrong track,” and 38% say it is headed in the “right direction,” a Democratic Party official said.

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Democrats also believe they have the right candidate for the socially conservative House district.

Michaud “is pro-gun, pro-life ... a guy who can appeal to labor unions and social conservatives--a nice mix for him,” said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst in Washington.

In Pennsylvania, the GOP’s Gerlach is expected to benefit from a financial advantage in the race’s closing days. But the new Democratic commercials on the economy and failed corporate responsibility could find their mark in the district, said Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Millersville University in Millersville.

“As good a set of two issues you can find,” Madonna said.

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Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this report.


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