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Bush Replays Themes That Worked in 2000 Election

Times Staff Writer

President Bush, in sharpening on Monday his case for reelection, signaled his determination to return to arguments that worked against Al Gore in 2000.

At the heart of Bush’s speech at a Republican fundraiser was a determined effort to frame the 2004 election as a stark choice between more government and more individual freedom -- the same contrast he used with success against Gore in the final two months of their razor-tight race.

“The American people will decide between two visions of government: a government that encourages ownership and opportunity and responsibility, or a government that takes your money and makes your choices,” Bush said.

That formulation echoed Bush’s insistence in 2000 that he wanted “to empower the American people” while Gore wanted “to empower the federal government.”

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Many Democrats agree that assertion hurt Gore in the closing weeks of the campaign. Bush’s return to the argument suggests that a key question in this year’s campaign could be whether Americans are more worried about big government or the powerful corporate interests that Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina -- the two remaining major Democratic presidential candidates -- promise to confront.

The choice between big government and small government “obviously worked to a large extent for Bush in 2000, and could well do that again in 2004,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “But I think we are in a very different context in 2004, where the public is much more attuned to the need for government to play an active role in policing excessive corporate power.”

In both his speech to the fundraiser for the Republican Governors Assn. and remarks earlier Monday to the National Governors Assn., Bush made it clear that he would aggressively rebut the Democrats’ harsh critique of his domestic and foreign policies.

He defended not only the war with Iraq and his tax cuts, but his initiatives on other fronts. Among them:

* The Patriot Act. Kerry and Edwards voted for the law, adopted after the Sept. 11 attacks and billed as a way to strengthen the government’s capacity to monitor suspected terrorists. As candidates, both have denounced it as an infringement on civil liberties. In his Monday morning remarks, Bush insisted the law needed to be renewed, saying, “It makes no sense not to have the tools available to chase these terrorists down.”

* Education. Kerry and Edwards voted for the No Child Left Behind Act, Bush’s plan requiring schools to show progress in student performance on annual tests in reading and math. But as candidates, both have criticized the law and proposed loosening its accountability standards -- the object of intense criticism from teachers unions. Bush said he would “vigorously defend” the law because “it’s the absolute right role for the federal government ... to insist upon results, to say for the first time, ‘Would you please show us whether or not the children are learning to read and write and add and subtract.’ ”

* Trade. Kerry and Edwards have escalated their attacks on free trade, saying they would shelve Bush’s effort to expand the North American Free Trade Agreement unless it contained tougher provisions than the administration supported for stronger labor and environmental standards across the hemisphere. But Bush said, “We won’t back off our desire to open up markets for U.S. products -- farm products, ranch products, manufacturing products.”

The addresses underscored Bush’s determination -- displayed in his recent appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” -- to present himself as a tested and reliable leader in a dangerous and changing world.

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But the speech at the GOP fundraiser -- the more overtly political of the two -- was perhaps most notable for Bush’s emphasis on the divide between the parties over the role of government, their most fundamental and enduring dispute.

Bush portrayed his agenda as one that would shift power to individuals -- through tax cuts, allowing workers to invest part of their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market, and the recent Medicare legislation that aims to increase the role of private companies in providing healthcare to the elderly.

Reprising his arguments against Gore, Bush insisted Democratic proposals would “increase the power of politicians and bureaucrats over your income, your retirement, your healthcare and your life. It’s that same old Washington mind-set -- they’ll give the orders and you pay the bills.”

The address launched what is likely to be a sustained GOP effort to paint Kerry -- seen by Republicans as Bush’s likely challenger -- as a big-spending liberal who has abandoned the fiscal discipline that characterized the Democratic Party during President Clinton’s administration.

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That’s another echo of 2000. In the final weeks of that campaign, the Republican National Committee ran ads accusing Gore of proposing three times as much new spending as Clinton did in 1992. On the stump, Bush accused Gore of abandoning Clinton’s declaration that “the era of big government is over.”

If Kerry wins the nomination, he could be vulnerable to similar arguments. Like most of the other Democrats who were in the nomination race, Kerry has proposed significant new spending; his plan to increase access to healthcare is more expensive than any single idea Gore advanced in 2000.

Republican strategists close to the White House already have been tallying the cost of Kerry’s proposals to challenge his claim that he is more committed to fiscal discipline than Bush is.

Those Republican arguments could still carry a bite: A recent survey by Democratic strategist Stanley B. Greenberg found than nearly two-thirds of voters expressed doubts about Kerry when they were read Republican arguments that portrayed him as “a typical tax-and-spend liberal.”

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Bush’s offensive on this front could increase pressure on Kerry to flesh out his ideas for reforming government and reducing the deficit -- themes Kerry has muted while courting Democratic support in the primaries.

“Democrats have to remind voters that we want to reform government, not just expand it,” said Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.

Even so, Reed and many other Democrats are optimistic that Bush will have a more difficult time than in 2000 framing the election as a choice between his commitment to individual freedom and Democratic loyalty to big government.

Bush, they say, may have difficulty portraying anyone as fiscally irresponsible after presiding over the federal government’s largest deficit.

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Democrats also believe anxiety over the economic trends during Bush’s first term -- from the loss of jobs to the rise in the number of Americans without health insurance -- has shifted public concern away from the power of government to the power of private interests. Recent polls have shown that most voters believe Bush cares more about the wealthy and corporate interests than about average Americans.

“These things are very much the subject of pendulum swings,” said Garin, arguing that the arguments Bush used in 2000 will be “substantially less powerful” this year.

That conclusion may be premature. What’s clear from Bush’s opening salvos Monday is that when it comes to the role of government, he is willing to bet most Americans still believe less is more.


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