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Debate Strategies Pit Ideology vs. Ideas

Times Staff Writer

President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry have honed sharply contrasting strategies for their debate on domestic policy tonight that highlight divergent views on the role of government in society and the importance of ideology in the presidential race.

Whenever possible, Bush hopes to broaden the faceoff in Tempe, Ariz., from disputes over specifics -- such as healthcare or education -- to frame the election as a starkly ideological choice between limiting or expanding government, said a senior Republican strategist familiar with White House planning.

Kerry, as signaled by his dismissive rejection of political “labels” at Friday’s debate, aims to blur ideological distinctions and focus as concretely as possible on his individual proposals.

Bush’s goal, in short, is to aggregate the choice voters face into a single referendum on government’s size and scope, while Kerry wants to separate the debate into sparring over his ideas -- and Bush’s record -- on key domestic issues.

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“The debate will see a contrast between discrete issues versus a larger governing philosophy,” said the senior GOP strategist. “Our strongest ground is talking about the golden thread that runs through John Kerry’s record, which we would say shows that he’s a liberal. His is saying, ‘I reject labels, and I deal with these issues discretely.’ I think that’s what you can expect.”

Kerry aides see the debate -- the last of three between the candidates -- in similar terms. One senior Kerry aide said the campaign thought its best chance of blunting Bush’s drive to portray the Democrat as a “big government” liberal is to flesh out his specific plans. That would contrast with Kerry’s responses in Friday’s debate, when he spent more time telling voters he had a plan than explaining it to them.

“If people get a sense of what [Kerry] is going to do, they are less likely to believe he is a big tax-and-spender,” the advisor said.

Bush enters this debate on difficult terrain. For one thing, he must defend an assortment of economic and social trends that offer tempting targets for Kerry.

Although the economy has added jobs for 15 consecutive months, Bush remains likely to become the first president since Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression to see a net loss of jobs over his term.

Also, since Bush took office, the number of Americans without health insurance and the number in poverty have increased by 13% and 14% respectively.

And the cost of health insurance premiums has risen by 59%, while the median family income has slightly declined.

All of these numbers present Bush with a conundrum, GOP and Democratic analysts agree. Like any incumbent, he wants to accentuate positive trends. But as he does, Kerry is prepared to argue that Bush won’t solve problems facing the country because he won’t acknowledge them -- an increasing refrain from the senator.

With that argument, the Kerry camp hopes to shift what might be called the burden of uncertainty: while Bush emphasizes the risks of change, his rival asserts that voters have more to fear from continuing along the president’s path.

“You can make Bush the risky choice, because Bush is a man who won’t admit a problem ... and therefore he cannot make things better in Iraq, he cannot make things better for the middle class,” the senior Kerry aide said.

Bush faces a second hurdle. Polls consistently have found that voters trust Kerry more than him on most aspects of domestic policy. The latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll showed Kerry scored better than Bush on nine of 10 domestic issues surveyed, including healthcare, Medicare, education and the economy. Bush led only on taxes.

Yet Republicans are upbeat about Bush’s prospects in tonight’s debate because he has settled on a strategy intended to reduce these vulnerabilities while challenging Kerry.

Aides say that as he defends his record, Bush aims to pivot as quickly as possible toward his plans for the future -- and to do so in a way that funnels the argument over specific issues into the more sweeping question of the role of government.

It is an article of faith among Bush strategists -- and many Democrats -- that the broader and more ideological the choice for voters, the better Republicans fare.

“In modern times, Republicans have never lost a presidential race that’s been sharply defined ideologically,” the senior GOP strategist said.

In the last two weeks, Bush has taken several steps to sharpen the race’s ideological lines. One is to paint Kerry as a liberal, based on his voting record. At Friday’s debate, the president also stressed his own conservative views on social issues, such as abortion.

Bush also has begun depicting what’s at stake in the election in almost exactly the same terms he used during the final weeks of his 2000 contest with Democrat Al Gore.

“My opponent wants to empower government,” Bush said last week in a new campaign speech. “I want to use government to empower people.”

Bush wraps the “ownership society” theme around his proposals to reduce taxes, to create new tax incentives for savings and investment, and to allow workers to divert part of their Social Security taxes into accounts they could invest in the stock market.

Bush now uses his ideological argument perhaps most aggressively on healthcare.

The president portrays Kerry’s healthcare plan as a dramatic expansion of government control -- an assertion the Democrat says misrepresents his proposal. And Bush presents his own plans, centered on tax-favored accounts that individuals could use to pay more of their healthcare expenses out of pocket, as a means to provide individuals more control over their medical decisions.

After Bush’s responses on domestic policy questions in Friday’s debate, conservatives are optimistic that the president can take the offense in the final encounter. Many conservatives viewed Kerry as defensive and unsteady in his answers on social issues -- a view shared privately by some of the senator’s advisors. And many Bush allies think the president is striking a resonant chord with his arguments about ownership and individual control.

“There is a thread running all the way through [the domestic agenda] for the president: that you can trust ordinary people to make wise decisions if you give them the opportunity,” said Stuart Butler, vice president for domestic and economic research at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Butler said that contrasts with “the Kerry vision that the purpose of government is to redeploy resources on behalf of ordinary people to help them.”

Many Kerry advisors remain convinced that Bush won’t succeed in framing the choice that way, partly because the trends on jobs and healthcare have hurt his credibility.

Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg said Bush was driving away independent voters by emphasizing his conservative views on government’s role and social issues. And tonight, Kerry is likely to attack Bush’s “ownership” ideas -- particularly his Social Security proposal -- as an attempt to shift not control but risk from government to individuals.

But other senior Kerry advisors acknowledge the senator must do a better job than at Friday’s debate at escaping the big-government box Bush has sought to construct around him, especially on healthcare.

“The good news is we have a healthcare plan that actually does rely on the private sector,” said a top Kerry aide. “But we need to do a better job of puncturing what Bush is saying.”

Part of the problem for Kerry is that unlike Bush, he has not offered voters an overarching theory of government’s role that unifies his agenda.

Instead, Kerry is more likely to try to counter Bush’s antigovernment populism with populist arguments targeted at powerful interests, such as insurance, drug and oil companies.

But many Democrats say that tying Bush to big business may be less important for Kerry tonight than untying himself from big government.

In the CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released Monday, 52% said they agreed with the core Bush argument that Kerry would rely too much on government to achieve his goals.

“Now is the time for Kerry to tell people the three or four things he would do differently that would both convert their inchoate feeling that they want change into something more confident, and belie the claim that he is some kind of pre-Clinton liberal,” said Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank.


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