Bush, Kerry Press Ahead

Times Staff Writers

Amid reports of surges in voter registration in several key states, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry focused Monday on domestic issues -- taxes and stem-cell research -- as their running mates prepared to debate tonight.

Bush traveled to Iowa, one of several closely contested Midwestern states, to sign a bill extending key provisions of his tax cuts. The move would “leave close to $50 billion next year in the hands of the people who earned it,” he said. “And that money will help keep the economy moving forward and result in even more new jobs for American workers.”

Kerry was in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, two other battleground states, where he cited restrictions on federal funding of stem-cell research to depict Bush as rigid and indifferent to the concerns of average Americans.


“This president is making the wrong choice to sacrifice science for extreme right-wing ideology, and that’s unacceptable,” Kerry said at a town hall meeting in Hampton, N.H., attended by actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.

Bush and Kerry pressed their cases as a batch of new national polls suggested that the presidential race had tightened following Thursday’s debate, of which Kerry was widely regarded as the winner.

Two of the surveys -- the Gallup Poll and one by CBS News and the New York Times -- showed the contest dead even.

A pair of others -- an ABC News-Washington Post poll and a survey by the Pew Research Center, found Bush ahead by 5 percentage points among likely voters, a lead within the margins of error.

At the same time, evidence grew of intensified public interest in this year’s election as voter registration deadlines arrived Monday in more than a dozen states -- including Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which have a combined 68 electoral votes of the 270 needed to win the White House.

Elections officials in these and several other states reported a last-minute rush of registrations. In Florida, nearly 600,000 new voters have registered since January; Ohio is expecting more than 600,000 new registrants, once all of the applications are tallied.


Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in Washington, described this year’s presidential race as “probably the most emotional election since 1968. I expect the turnout to be up substantially.”

The new poll results and the prospect of an expanded electorate elevated the stakes for tonight’s debate in Cleveland between Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, which starts at 6 p.m. PDT. The two will meet for 90 minutes on the campus of Case Western Reserve University in their only face-to-face encounter of the campaign.

Unlike the presidential debate, which was focused on foreign policy, their session is expected to cover a variety of topics. Cheney and Edwards will be seated at a table, with PBS senior correspondent Gwen Ifill as moderator asking the questions.

Both sides got an early start Monday on the lines of attack the two candidates were expected to pursue.

“Dick Cheney is a poster child for more of the same,” said Bruce Reed, a former domestic policy advisor in the Clinton White House who is helping the Kerry campaign. “John Edwards is a symbol that hope is on the way.”

Matthew Dowd, a top political strategist for Bush, said the debate would draw “a stark contrast” between the administration’s plans for winning “the war on terror ... keeping our economy growing and responding to the new challenges of the 21st century” and the Democratic ticket’s plans for “taking us back ... to the pre-9/11 days.”


Bush and Kerry are scheduled to hold their second debate Friday in St. Louis, fielding questions from an audience of undecided voters in a town hall format that is intended to delve mainly into domestic topics. They spent Monday honing their arguments.

The tax measure Bush signed was overwhelmingly approved by Congress last month. It extends several tax-cut provisions that would have expired this year, including the $1,000 per-child tax credit, the 10% income-tax bracket on the first $14,000 in annual income and a number of business tax breaks.

“Overall, 94 million Americans will have a lower tax bill next year,” Bush said as he signed the measure. “The money they keep will make it easier to save for retirement or their children’s education, invest in a home or a small business, or pay off credit card debts.”

Kerry favors many of the same tax breaks, but proposes repealing the cuts for families earning more than $200,000 a year and using the savings to boost federal spending on healthcare and education programs.

At Bush’s second appearance Monday, in the Des Moines suburb of Clive, he took a swipe at Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who led a failed healthcare reform effort while serving as first lady. In a line that drew laughter, the president denigrated Kerry’s plan to expand healthcare as “a system that’s creeping toward Hillary-care.”

Kerry’s campaign strongly disputed the contention that his proposal was as complex or would lead to as much government involvement as the Clinton administration’s plan.


Bush also assailed Kerry’s positions on Iraq and North Korea, two subjects that figured prominently in last week’s debate. At one point, the president all but shouted that his rival “has no plan” to end the war in Iraq.

Responding to Kerry’s accusations he had pursued a unilateralist foreign policy, Bush noted that he had included China, South Korea, Japan and Russia in talks aimed at persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear aspirations.

The White House also announced a change in Bush’s schedule that seemed aimed at generating more attention on his agenda. Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the president on Wednesday would deliver “a significant speech” on the economy and the war on terrorism.

Bush had been scheduled to focus on medical-liability reform that day.

Kerry, at his stops in New Hampshire and later in Philadelphia, seized on the stem-cell issue that polls have indicated resonates powerfully with the moderate and swing voters he has been trying to attract.

Kerry told hundreds of supporters packed in a stuffy high school gym in Hampton that more than 100 million Americans suffer from diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s that eventually could be treated through research on embryonic stem cells. The campaign also released a new 30-second television ad explaining his support for stem-cell research.

Bush authorized federal funding of stem-cell research in August 2001. But he restricted the funding to existing lines of stem cells, because the research involves the destruction of human embryos. For that reason, social conservatives and religious leaders tend to oppose the research.


But many advocates argue that the existing lines are inadequate, and have called on Bush to loosen the limits on the stem-cell pool available for federally funded research.

Kerry favors that position and used the issue to press his argument that Bush has neglected the needs of average Americans in favor of his own ideology. “The issue of stem-cell research is symbolic of this administration and of our president,” he said. “It tells the story about how he makes decisions. It tells the story of how he sees the world.

“This underscores, in my judgment, the perils of having a president who turns his back on science in favor of ideology and as a result abandons millions of Americans’ hopes, the hopes of the country, and the possibilities of the future,” he added.

During the 90-minute town hall meeting, the candidate’s message was illustrated by sometimes tearful testimony from people suffering from various diseases, and others whose relatives have been diagnosed with life-threatening illnesses.

Steve Walter, a registered Republican from Londonderry, N.H., told the audience that he voted for Bush in 2000 because he “assumed the Republican Party had my best interests in mind.”

But after his son Alex, now 7, was diagnosed with diabetes, Walter said he became upset by the restrictions on stem-cell funding. With Alex perched next to him on a stool, Walter described how his son’s hands have grown calloused from hourly needle pricks to test his blood sugar. “He’s a tough kid -- probably superhero status,” said a tearful Walter. “For President Bush to turn his back and limit stem-cell research is morally irresponsible.”


Fox made his own plea for increased federal funding. “We’re really losing ground here,” the actor said. “If America leads as it should, it would be done right, it would be done ethically, it would help millions and millions and millions of people.”



VP debates

Vice presidential matchups usually draw fewer viewers than presidential debates.

*--* Debate Viewers (in millions) 2000 Sen. Joe Lieberman (D) 28.5 Dick Cheney (R) 1996 Al Gore (D) 26.6 Jack Kemp (R) 1992 Sen. Al Gore (D) 51.2 Dan Quayle (R) James Stockdale (I) 1988 Sen. Dan Quayle (R) 46.9 Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) 1984 George Bush (R) 56.7 Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D)


Source: Commission on Presidential Debates; researched by Susannah Rosenblatt

Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak in Cleveland contributed to this report.