With the campaign for president reaching the closing-argument stage, Republicans called Sen. John F. Kerry the most liberal candidate for president in history, while Kerry said President Bush’s inept prosecution of the war in Iraq had left the “great potential” for a military draft.
The attempt by both sides Friday to suggest that the other would put the country on risky ground seemed to fulfill what both sides had predicted: a harsh conclusion to an extremely close race.
Those messages promised to get plenty of airplay in the final 17 days of the campaign, as new finance reports indicated that independent groups could end up spending as much as $250 million by Nov. 2.
Kerry criticized Bush’s military planning and raised the specter of a draft in an interview published Friday by the Des Moines Register.
“With George Bush, the plan for Iraq is more of the same and the great potential of a draft,” the Democratic nominee said.
Republicans accused the senator of “fear-mongering” for political gain, noting that the president had promised not to institute a draft. But Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry stood by the statement.
“The inevitable consequence of bearing the burden solely for protecting our vital interests and not working with our close allies,” McCurry said, “is that you stretch the force almost to the point where you’ve got to do something.”
The spokesman denied that Kerry was suggesting Bush had a “secret plan” for reinstituting the draft. But Kerry has been keeping the issue alive since he first raised it Sept. 22 at a town hall meeting in West Palm Beach, Fla.
A woman at the forum asked about rumors that the draft was coming back.
“If George Bush were to be reelected, given the way he has gone about this war and given his avoidance of responsibility in North Korea and Iran and other places, it is possible,” Kerry said.
He went on to pledge to “not reinstate the draft unless the United States of America faced the kind the global attack or conflagration where everybody in America understood through an open, democratic process we needed to defend this nation in that means.”
Voting officials have noted the high number of young people registering to vote, and some experts have speculated that fear of the draft could be driving those numbers.
“If you go and talk to any college kid on any campus, or report out what people are nervous about, you run into this,” McCurry told reporters Friday. “I mean, we get asked this all the time ... This is something people are very worried about.”
In an effort to dispel concerns of a draft, Republicans in the House of Representatives last week hastily arranged to have the idea voted down, which it did overwhelmingly, 402 to 2.
It was not only Kerry who was sowing doubts, as the Republican National Committee launched a new attack ad about the senator from Massachusetts.
A narrator in the 30-second spot calls Kerry “the most liberal man in the Senate. The most liberal person to ever run for president.” He goes on to say Kerry has voted to cut military and intelligence agencies.
“We live in a dangerous world that requires strong and steady leadership,” the ad concludes. “John Kerry is a risky choice for America, a risk we cannot take.”
The new GOP ad cites no evidence to back up the contention that Kerry is more liberal than every other presidential contender in the nation’s history. Bush previously has cited a magazine analysis that said Kerry had the most liberal Senate voting record in 2003, although the results of that analysis may have been skewed because Kerry missed many votes as he campaigned for president.
Although Kerry is generally in the Senate’s liberal wing, he has cast several significant votes on trade, balanced budgets, welfare and other matters that indicate a centrist streak. He voted to cut military and intelligence programs at various points in his career -- along with some Republicans at the end of the Cold War -- but also supported defense and intelligence bills far more often than not.
Kerry’s campaign Friday called the liberal label “misleading and disingenuous.”
“John Kerry opposed his party to vote for deficit reduction, supported landmark welfare reform, supports middle-class tax cuts, led the fight to put 100,000 cops on the street and supports increasing our military,” the campaign said in a statement.
Both candidates were only slightly more polite as they campaigned in tightly contested Midwestern states Friday.
Kerry used three campaign stops in Wisconsin to rip into Bush over the state of the middle class, accusing his rival of purposefully turning his back on the needs of working Americans in favor of his wealthy allies.
In a speech before a partisan audience at the Milwaukee Area Technical College, he pressed his case that the Bush administration had ignored the rising costs of healthcare, child care and college education that he said were squeezing middle-class families.
“Every time you think you’re going to get ahead, it just kind of slips away as prices go up,” Kerry said.
“The problem is, this president either just doesn’t understand what’s happened to our economy and to the average family in America, or he understands and he just doesn’t care,” he added, as more than 500 people gathered in a campus auditorium whooped.
The Democrat said he would raise the minimum wage and provide tax credits to help make healthcare and college tuition more affordable. He also reiterated his pledge to end tax benefits for companies that moved overseas.
While the campaign had shied away earlier from a message of change that it feared might be too unsettling to moderate voters, Kerry’s aides said critiques about the president would be followed by calls for a fresh start and a new way of attacking the nation’s woes.
At rallies in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Oshkosh, Wis., Bush said that Kerry could make promises, but called himself the candidate with a proven record.
“My record is one of reforming education, of lowering taxes, of providing prescription drug coverage for seniors, for [improving] homeland protections,” Bush told about 4,000 supporters in a Cedar Rapids sports arena. “And of waging an aggressive war against the ideologues of hate.”
He called Kerry’s record “20 years of out-of-the-mainstream votes without many significant reforms or results to show for those 20 years.”
The president went on to recall that, in their final debate, Kerry had chided him for talking about education when the question had been about jobs.
“Good jobs start with good education,” Bush said. “That’s how we create jobs in America.”
Supporters of both candidates have had plenty of money at their disposal to get their messages out.
America Coming Together and the Media Fund, the largest of the independent groups raising money to help defeat President Bush in November, have raised about $100 million this year, according to reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service on Friday.
The liberal groups will end up spending about $150 million to influence this year’s presidential race -- far exceeding what the Democratic National Committee will spend on the election.
“We have never seen anything like this in terms of outside group activity,” said campaign finance expert Tony Corrado, a professor at Colby College in Maine.
Republican-leaning independent groups called 527s have raised about $50 million since May -- primarily though the Progress for America Voter Fund and Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth. Their total spending pales in comparison to that of the Democratic-leaning groups.
Times staff writers James Rainey, Edwin Chen, Lisa Getter and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.