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Bush, Kerry Covering Much of the Same Ground

Times Staff Writers

President Bush trolled for Latino votes and Sen. John F. Kerry campaigned for the support of senior citizens Wednesday, as the two played a game of political leapfrog across the Southwest and into Southern California.

Bush, campaigning in Albuquerque, pitched his policies on small business and homeownership to a few hundred supporters in the hangar of a private aviation firm. “I have a desire to make sure this country is a stronger country, a better country for everybody -- por todos,” Bush said, sprinkling in a bit of Spanish.

Kerry appeared at a community center in booming Henderson, where he assailed the new Medicare prescription drug program as a giveaway to pharmaceutical firms and said Americans should be allowed to import cheaper drugs from Canada.

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“This isn’t fair competition. It’s a monopoly, and it’s been put in place by George Bush and his friends, and it’s costing you a whole bunch of money, and it’s wrong,” Kerry told a predominantly gray-haired crowd of about 300 guests.

For the last few days, the two presidential candidates have campaigned almost as if they were a tag team or political roadshow.

Kerry has been in New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada, and this morning plans to discuss economic policy at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson. He then heads to Oregon.

Bush’s schedule over three days includes stops in New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. Today in Santa Monica, he plans an evening fundraiser at the airport with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He then heads to Oregon.

Strategists for both candidates said they made their plans first.

“Bush has no strategy so he has to play follow the leader,” said Stephanie Cutter, a Kerry spokeswoman.

“The president’s travels are determined weeks, sometimes months, in advance,” said Scott Stanzel of the Bush campaign.

Regardless of who is shadowing whom, the overlapping appearances reflect the unusually taut nature of this presidential race and the relatively limited number of states that are truly in play with just 82 days left until the election. (California, which appears safely Democratic, is a perennial fundraising draw.)

“The 2000 election drove home to everybody that this is really not a nationwide election,” said Rhodes Cook, an independent campaign analyst in Washington, who suggested true competition was down to about 15 states.

“If you’re really not campaigning in 50 states but only in about 15, then the chances of running into each other are quite considerable.”

In Albuquerque, Bush held a town hall-style event that focused on issues his campaign advisors said had strong appeal for Latinos: small business and homeownership.

“When you hear my opponent talk about taxing the rich ... he’s really taxing small businesses,” the president said. He contended that many small businesses would be hurt by Kerry’s proposal to roll back tax cuts for those who earn more than $200,000 because they pay taxes at individual tax rates.

Bush also lauded his faith-based initiative to make federal dollars available to religious-based charities: “I understand that government is not a loving organization. But government can stand side by side with loving organizations to help improve the lives of people from all walks of life.”

Bush advisors believe the president’s appeal is strong among churchgoing Latinos, and religion was a consistent theme among the questioners, most of whom were non-Latino whites. One woman said she was there with her prayer group.

“We are praying for righteous leaders in Washington and throughout our country, because we know that it’s time for America to get back to its moral roots that our founders put in place for us when this country was founded,” the woman said. “And it is time for the people in this country to realize that and to call out for righteous leaders.”

Bush lost New Mexico by an even smaller margin than he won Florida -- by fewer than 400 votes. Recent state polls show Bush and Kerry in a statistical dead heat.

Bush appealed for a stronger turnout this election day. Without making direct reference to his opponent’s Boston roots, Bush told his crowd that he understood the West better than Kerry did.

“I understand the issues of the West ... ,” the president said. “My opponent voted against my Healthy Forests Initiative. Now he says he likes a lot of parts of the law. I guess it’s not just the wildfires that shift with the wind.”

But it is Bush’s national security credentials that Republicans continue to highlight most as a general theme. The Bush campaign began running a new 30-second television ad on national cable stations and network affiliates in 19 battleground states Wednesday.

The ad, titled “Solemn Duty,” emphasizes the need to stop terrorism and evokes the Sept. 11 attacks. In it, Bush, seated next to wife Laura, looks into the camera and says his “most solemn duty is to lead our nation to protect ourselves.” Referring to the terrorist attacks in 2001, Bush says that he “can’t imagine the great agony of a mom or a dad having to make the decision about which child to pick up first on Sept. the 11th.”

He concludes that “we must do everything in our power to bring an enemy to justice before they hurt us again.”

In Nevada, Kerry focused his attention on senior citizens, with aides announcing an effort to mobilize older voters across the country and noting the endorsement of the Alliance for Retired Americans, a political group that claims 3 million members.

Appearing in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb that has rapidly grown into Nevada’s second-biggest city, Kerry reiterated his support for importing cheaper drugs and pledged never to support privatization of the Social Security system. “Dr. Kerry is here to cure you all,” he joked.

Reading from a price list of widely used prescription pills that showed Americans paying upwards of three times as much as Canadians, Kerry said the Medicare bill signed into law in December was “hurting seniors” by forbidding them from purchasing their medication north of the border.

“I call on the president to do what he should have done in the first place,” Kerry said. “I call on the president to get out of the way of Americans being able to import drugs from Canada at a lower price.”

Bush and the pharmaceutical industry have cited concerns about the importation of drugs -- or reimportation, as it is known, since many of the drugs were originally manufactured in the United States. A task force established under the Medicare law is studying the issue and plans to send its recommendations to Congress.

Kerry’s remarks on Social Security drew the most enthusiastic ovation at Wednesday’s Henderson appearance. “I will never privatize Social Security,” he said. “I will not cut benefits and I will not raise the retirement age in this country, period.”

Government studies have suggested growing strains on the system as millions of aging baby boomers retire. Bush has proposed overhauling the system to allow establishment of personal investment accounts, suggesting individuals can be better trusted than the federal government to provide their retirement.

But Kerry said concerns about the long-term viability of the program could be fixed with a “tweak here, tweak there.”

Times staff writer Maria L. La Ganga contributed to this report. Barabak reported from Henderson and Reynolds from Albuquerque.


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