The Debate Rages On at Campaign Rallies

Times Staff Writers

The race for the White House hurtled through battleground states Saturday, with President Bush assailing Sen. John F. Kerry’s credibility on taxes and Iraq while his Democratic challenger portrayed the incumbent as out of touch with reality and lacking the maturity to lead the nation.

Both candidates went on the offensive after claiming momentum from a Friday night debate in St. Louis that many analysts judged a draw. Bush campaigned in Iowa and Minnesota, two states he lost in the 2000 election; Kerry stumped in Ohio and Florida, which the president carried four years ago.

Continuing one of his attack lines in the debate, Bush said that Kerry the candidate had sought to obfuscate his record as senator.


“To pay for big spending programs he’s outlined during his campaign, he will have to raise your taxes,” Bush declared at a rally here in Waterloo under chilly sunshine.

Kerry has proposed repealing the Bush tax cuts for those earning more than $200,000 a year but, as the Democrat pledged Friday night, he has flatly rejected Bush’s charges that he would raise taxes for other Americans.

Unpersuaded, Bush insisted Kerry could not be trusted to keep that pledge. “He can run, but he cannot hide” from his past support for tax hikes, Bush said, repeating a phrase he used during the debate.

By late afternoon, a partisan crowd at an outdoor rally in Chanhassen, Minn., was chiming in when the president repeated the “can’t hide” line.

Kerry was just as biting in his critique of Bush, charging that the president was refusing to recognize the consequences of his record in office.

“Do we want leadership -- as it’s called -- that can’t face reality and admit mistakes?” Kerry asked more than 12,000 supporters in Elyria, Ohio. “Or do we want leadership that sees the truth and tells the truth to the American people?”


In Ohio and again Saturday evening in Florida, Kerry said Bush had failed to show “maturity” in leading the world’s most powerful nation.

“Folks, we need some adults running the foreign policy of America,” Kerry told supporters at an appearance near Fort Lauderdale.

The stinging exchanges on the campaign trail came hours after a high-stakes debate on national television, their second of three. The last debate is scheduled to take place Wednesday in Tempe, Ariz.

Unlike the first debate, widely regarded as a victory for Kerry that helped him pull him into a tie with Bush in several national polls, many analysts doubted the second encounter would give either candidate a major boost

“It probably bolstered the spirits of followers of both,” said political scientist Susan A. MacManus of the University of South Florida.

“Both candidates were effective; nothing really was changed,” said Herb Asher, a political scientist at Ohio State University.


Analysts said each candidate could be happy with the outcome of the debate: Kerry kept his stride; Bush, to the relief of Republicans, got his back.

“Kerry proved he wasn’t a one-hit wonder,” said independent analyst Charlie Cook, who edits a political newsletter in Washington. “President Bush stabilized himself. They both can walk out satisfied.”

Democratic strategists said Kerry sought in the debate to reach out to independent voters by invoking the foreign policy legacies of Republican presidents like Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower and by stressing his own record as an advocate of balanced federal budgets. They said that Bush seemed more interested in firing up his core followers.

“It looked like George Bush spent the evening trying to reassure his base,” said Kerry advisor Joe Lockhart. “We, I think, spoke directly to swing voters that will decide this election.”

Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political advisor, dismissed the Kerry camp’s interpretation as a “myopic misread of the American electorate.”

With the Nov. 2 election nearing, part of the Bush campaign strategy is to force Kerry to defend states the Democrats carried in 2000, such as Iowa and Minnesota. Together, they have 17 electoral votes. Kerry’s stops in Ohio and Florida targeted 47 electoral votes.


Every choice the candidates make on travel is now critical in their quest for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

Bush, who is resting at his ranch in Texas today, is scheduled to visit New Mexico and Colorado this week before the Arizona debate and Nevada and Oregon afterward.

Kerry is planning to campaign in Miami today and then fly to Albuquerque.

In his speeches Saturday, Kerry stepped up his efforts to portray Bush as out of touch, saying that America did not need “a single-minded leader, but a clear-headed leader; not a headstrong leader, but a well-reasoned leader.”

He said Bush was incapable of admitting mistakes in the Iraq war or of grasping the day-to-day hardships of middle-class families.

Speaking in Ohio on a stage covered with pumpkins, apple bushels and hay bales, Kerry drew cheers when he asked if the crowd had watched the debate, moderated by ABC’s Charles Gibson.

Kerry joked that at one point, he was “a little worried” that Bush “was going to attack Charlie Gibson.” He was referring to a moment when an animated Bush overrode Gibson’s attempt to ask a follow-up question.


The president -- who in his dealings with reporters frequently interrupts questioners -- wanted to make a point about the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq after Kerry faulted him for going it “alone.”

“You tell Tony Blair we’re going alone,” Bush said, referring to the British prime minister who supported Bush in the invasion of Iraq.

Bush aides said the episode reflected not anger but passion to defend the contributions of important U.S. allies. “He was not going to let it stand,” said Bush advisor Karen Hughes.

Here in Waterloo, Bush acknowledged that some of Kerry’s comments had provoked him.

“Several of the statements last night simply don’t pass the credibility test,” Bush said. “With a straight face, he said, ‘I have only had one position on Iraq.’ I could barely contain myself. He must think we’ve been on another planet.”

Bush was playing off a line Kerry used last week after the release of a definitive a CIA report that declared there was no evidence that Iraq produced weapons of mass destruction after 1991 and that its capacity for doing so was diminishing, not growing.

Commenting on the report, Kerry said, Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney “may well be the last two people on the planet who won’t face the truth about Iraq.”


Although the CIA report could prove a political blow to Bush, the president on Saturday savored two developments on the international front: the reelection of an Australian leader who has been an ally in Iraq and the conclusion of the first presidential election in Afghanistan.

Bush called Australian Prime Minister John Howard to congratulate him on his victory. And throughout the day, Bush spotlighted the emergence of democracy in Afghanistan after U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban regime in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“A marvelous thing is happening in Afghanistan,” Bush said at a fundraiser before he left St. Louis. “Freedom is powerful. Think about a society in which young girls couldn’t go to school and their mothers were whipped in the public square. And today, they’re holding a presidential election.”

While the airborne candidates raced from tarmac to tarmac to rally partisans and woo undecided voters, the TV advertising battle was marked by a volley of new commercials in politically strategic markets.

In Pennsylvania, Kerry aired a 30-second ad that included a testimonial from a widow of one of his Swift boat comrades in Vietnam. She said that her late husband would have been “shocked to see John Kerry’s service attacked or questioned.”

The commercial was responding to a group of Navy veterans who have been critical of Kerry’s Vietnam record and his subsequent protests against that war.


The widow, Judy Droz Keyes, said in the ad for Kerry: “John Kerry told the truth about Vietnam. He’s telling the truth about Iraq today.”

Kerry was also on airwaves in Wisconsin, New Mexico and Florida with new ads that attacked Bush’s record on healthcare and Iraq and promoted the Democrat as a friend of the middle class.

In Iowa, a pro-Republican group launched an ad praising the president’s leadership after the Sept. 11 attacks. “President Bush held us together and began to hunt down the terrorists,” the Progress for America Voter Fund ad asserted.

Times staff writers Nick Anderson, Mark Z. Barabak and Robin Abcarian contributed to this report.