Kerry Sidesteps Job Growth as He Hits Bush on Economy

Times Staff Writers

After a weeklong hiatus, John F. Kerry resumed campaigning Monday by sharply attacking President Bush’s stewardship of the economy, shrugging off the recent spike in job growth.

“The fact is that the middle class is going backward, and those trying to get into it are sliding backward, working harder, two or three jobs, can’t get ahead while the people at the top are doing better and better,” Kerry said, speaking at a fundraiser hosted by rock singer Jon Bon Jovi.

“We need a president who fights as hard for the jobs of the middle class and the values of the middle class as he does for his own job, and for the values of people at the top of the income scale in this country.”


Kerry’s remarks at Bon Jovi’s mansion -- and earlier at an airport rally outside Atlantic City -- kicked off a series of economy-themed events this week in New Jersey, Ohio and Michigan.

Monday’s events marked Kerry’s return to active campaigning after suspending events following President Reagan’s death.

The presumed Democratic presidential nominee is highlighting the rising costs of child care, healthcare and gasoline as he makes the case that the Bush administration has failed middle-class families. On Monday, Kerry’s campaign released a state-by-state breakdown of those expenses, along with bankruptcies.

“I’ve met steelworkers and mineworkers and autoworkers who are now ex-workers, and every single one of them know that their job has been unbolted before their eyes, shipped overseas,” the Massachusetts senator said at the airport rally.

He struck a similar note in his speech to more than 300 donors milling around the pool and whirlpool at Bon Jovi’s castle-like New Jersey estate, but acknowledged the dissonance of the scene and the message.

“It’s not the average American we know that is here tonight, but the average American is the heart of the country.


“The average American is the great middle-class that Franklin Roosevelt paid attention to and understood and nurtured.”

Although Kerry’s description of the economic climate ran counter to a substantial pickup in new jobs, campaign officials said that the candidate’s diagnosis reflected widespread public sentiment.

“We believe that the economy will be a defining issue in this campaign,” Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill said during a briefing with reporters Monday in Washington. Americans, she said, “are uneasy about the direction of the country and increasingly eager to change course.”

The campaign painted a dismal picture of Bush’s economic record, despite the recent surge in job creation. About 1.3 million jobs have been lost overall since Bush took office.

“If you get D-minuses for 3 1/2years in college, one semester with a B-minus doesn’t put you on the honor roll,” Kerry economic advisor Gene Sperling said.

Bush campaign officials stressed the recent job growth trends, saying that 1.4 million jobs have been created since August, the fastest rate in 20 years.


“John Kerry will travel around the country this week delivering a message of doom and gloom and pessimism completely disconnected from reality,” said Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt.

“The economy is firing on all cylinders.”

Recent public polls show that about two-thirds of voters hold a negative view of the economy. In a recent Los Angeles Times poll, 54% of voters said they disapproved of Bush’s handling of the economy, and 43% approved.

Kerry’s focus on the economy is expected to dominate his campaign for the remainder of June. In July, in the weeks before the Democratic convention, he plans to announce his running mate, a campaign aide said.

With an interim government in Iraq about to take over from the U.S.-led coalition on June 30, Kerry’s aides said the senator will continue to address Iraq and national security issues, but they believe voters also want to hear about problems central to their lives.

By zeroing in on kitchen-table issues like child care and health costs, Kerry is refusing to cede Bush any ground on the domestic front, which many political analysts predict could be an advantage for the incumbent as the economy continues to improve.

“This is sort of a prophylactic move to keep the economy from becoming an asset in the fall” for Bush, said Charles Cook, editor of a nonpartisan political newsletter.


But Kerry’s success hinges on which vision of the economy voters eventually accept: his assessment that times are tough, or Bush’s appraisal that business is on an upswing, political experts say.

And the senator’s bleak view of the country’s fiscal health may undercut efforts to portray himself as an optimist.

Citing Kerry’s fundraising success and current standing in the polls, Cahill said that the senator’s campaign had “unquestioned momentum” and that Bush was “rudderless.”

“Their spin is as disconnected from reality as their economic message,” Schmidt said, noting most polls now showed the two men in a tight race.

Gold reported from Washington, Finnegan from Middletown.