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Kerry Pans Bush on Healthcare

Times Staff Writer

Sen. John F. Kerry, the former Democratic presidential candidate who has kept a relatively low profile since he lost November’s election, returned to the public stage Thursday with a combative speech on healthcare.

Reprising one of the disputes in the 2004 campaign, the Massachusetts lawmaker blasted President Bush’s policies and offered an alternative. Perhaps more significantly, the speech -- coming on the anniversary of his victory in last year’s crucial New Hampshire primary -- signaled to many that Kerry remained interested in seeking the White House.

“You know the old joke? There’s only one cure for presidential ambitions, and that is being embalmed,” said veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, who is based in Los Angeles. “I am presuming he’s keeping his options open. I think he clearly wants to make sure he’s in the forefront of leadership in the Democratic Party.”

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Such a role for Kerry would contrast with former Vice President Al Gore’s decision to avoid the public eye for a time following his bitterly contested loss to Bush in the 2000 election.

One key reason for the difference is that Kerry, unlike Gore, was not out of a job after his defeat. Indeed, Kerry is the first presidential nominee since Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.), 32 years ago, to return to an office on Capitol Hill after a failed White House run. Kerry made a wry reference Thursday to his dashed hopes.

“I must say, I did have to travel a few more blocks than I had hoped to get here,” the senator said as he began his remarks at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, which is closer to the White House than to the Capitol.

After Bush’s reelection and GOP gains in the House and Senate, Democrats are in the throes of a debate over whether they need a different kind of platform, a different kind of presidential candidate, or both to regain political momentum.

Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, described such discussions as premature.

“Everyone is still recovering from the last campaign, and it’s premature to start thinking about the next one,” Reed said.

And regardless of whether Kerry becomes a national candidate again, Reed said, it would be good for Democrats if the ’04 nominee played an active role in Washington’s policy debate.

“A senator who is a household name can have a real impact,” he said. “It’s not at all uncommon for former candidates to come back and throw themselves back into their old jobs with new vigor.”

Kerry was overseas when Congress reconvened this month and debated irregularities in Ohio’s vote in response to objections raised by two Democratic lawmakers during certification of the electoral vote. Bush’s narrow victory in that state cinched his reelection.

Since returning to Washington, Kerry has been easing back into public life. He attended Bush’s inauguration last week and launched an e-mail drive calling for the ouster of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

He also had some sharp questions for Condoleezza Rice during Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearings last week on her nomination as secretary of State, although Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) emerged as Rice’s chief critic.

Some who heard Kerry’s healthcare speech said the echoes of Kerry the candidate were strong.

“It almost feels like he’s on the campaign trail,” said Kimberly Ruff-Wilbert, who works for the United Spinal Assn. in Washington.

Kerry addressed the convention of Families USA, a group that promotes expanded healthcare coverage. Although the group is officially nonpartisan, many in the audience characterized themselves as strong Democratic supporters, and barbs directed at Bush won applause.

Kerry accused Bush of failing “to deal with the real and present healthcare crisis of our nation, even as he seeks to hype a phony crisis in Social Security.”

“You know what that sounds like to me? A cradle-to-grave irresponsibility plan,” Kerry said.

The plan Kerry introduced Wednesday was similar to one he offered during the campaign; it would provide health insurance for all uninsured children by expanding federal responsibility under Medicaid.

Medicaid is funded jointly by states and the federal government; under Kerry’s plan, Washington would pay all the costs for covering children at or below the poverty line. In return, states would expand coverage for the children of the working poor under the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Kerry’s bill has little chance of passage in a Congress controlled by Republicans.

As occurred frequently during the campaign, Kerry and Bush addressed the same topic Wednesday from different locales. The president traveled to Ohio to push his own healthcare proposals, including using technology to improve care.


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