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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Kerry Tells Houston, 'We've Got a Problem' -- Bush

In Texas, the challenger and the incumbent trade barbs on jobs, taxes and the war in Iraq.

March 07, 2004|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO — Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts dived into the heart of his rival's turf Saturday with a swing through Texas, where he engaged President Bush in a skirmish about their approach to jobs and other domestic issues.

Kerry, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, said at a town hall meeting in Houston that under the Bush administration, the country has lost jobs, and more people are without health insurance. "George Bush is a walking contradiction, a walking barrel of broken promises," Kerry told the morning gathering.

"As the phrase goes," he said, "Houston, we've got a problem."

Meanwhile, in his party's weekly radio address that aired Saturday, Kerry hammered the administration on another front, saying that Bush sent soldiers to war in Iraq without the proper equipment. Kerry cited reports that helicopters are flying missions without the best antimissile system and that thousands of troops were sent to Iraq without personal body armor.

In the afternoon, Kerry took his campaign to San Antonio. While Kerry was between cities, the president and his aides took a few swings of their own.

At his ranch in Crawford, where he was meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox, Bush charged that Kerry's economic policies would make it more difficult for people to find jobs. A Bush campaign spokesman accused Kerry of trying to have it both ways on the issue of troop preparedness, noting that Kerry voted against spending $87.5 billion for operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Today's radio address by John Kerry is the latest example of his astonishing ability to say one thing and do another," Scott Stanzel said in a statement.

Kerry's two-pronged attack came as he is gearing up for the general election with an increasingly aggressive tone. His aides said he plans to actively campaign through the spring even though he no longer faces significant competition within his party for the nomination.

One reason is financial: The senator lags far behind Bush in campaign fundraising. Kerry has set a goal of $80 million, and is planning fundraisers in 20 different cities through early May.

Another is that Kerry wants to keep voters engaged in the campaign in the upcoming months.

The candidate's trip to Texas -- like similar stops this weekend in Mississippi and Florida -- was pegged to Tuesday's Democratic primary in that state.

"We can change things, but we have to care about our democracy to do it and we have to do the hard work," Kerry said in Houston. "It's not free. You gotta go out and work for it. -- 537 votes in Florida, folks. That was the difference," he said, referring to the vote margin that swung the 2000 election. "Everybody counts."

At one point, he challenged the president's claim to Texas, alluding to the fact that Bush was actually born in Connecticut. When a man at the town hall meeting in Houston told the senator that he was from Kerry's home state of Massachusetts, Kerry suggested the man could also claim to hail from Texas.

"I mean, George Bush can move in, so can you, right?" he said to laughter from the audience.

In Crawford, Bush offered jabs of his own. In his first comments on the latest labor report, which showed that the economy grew only by 21,000 jobs in February, Bush insisted that the economy is improving.

"We've overcome a lot," the president told reporters after meeting with Fox. "We've been through a recession, we've been through an attack, we've been through corporate scandals, we've been through war, and yet our economy is getting stronger."

Bush suggested that Kerry plans to raise taxes and impose trade controls.

"The question is, who brings forth the best pro-growth policies?" Bush asked. "Raising taxes will make it harder for people to find work. We've got a pro-growth, pro-entrepreneur, pro-small business agenda that is making this economy stronger."

After landing in San Antonio, Kerry responded to Bush's remarks.

"I think George Bush ought to leave the ranch and come out and talk to people who have lost their jobs," he said, standing in a balloon-festooned plaza in front of a massive Lone Star flag. "I think he ought to leave the ranch and come out and talk to people who don't have any healthcare."

He accused Bush of telling "one of those tall Texas tales" in describing Kerry's stance on taxes and trade. Kerry has proposed raising taxes only on the highest tax brackets and has supported free-trade agreements as long as they are "fair" to American workers.

"I just want to say back to the president: I hope this early in the campaign he's not running so scared that he feels he's got to already depart from the truth," Kerry said as the nearly 1,000 people gathered in the plaza cheered.

Several of those who turned out to see Kerry on Saturday noted that his chance of winning Texas -- a state that voted for Bush by a 21-point margin in 2000 -- are slim. In San Antonio, a clutch of demonstrators greeted Kerry's motorcade with pro-Bush signs, such as "This is Bush Country."

"I think he's going to win against Bush, but here, it might be rough," acknowledged Doreen Fraietta, a bank teller who attended the town hall in Houston.

But those who showed up to support the Democratic candidate offered him a hearty welcome. Kerry arrived to a rally in San Antonio to the sound of Lyle Lovett crooning, "That's right, you're not from Texas -- Texas wants you anyway."

"I'll take great joy when you kick George W. Bush out of the White House, but -- there's a but here -- I'm sad to see him come back to Texas," one man told him in Houston.

"Well, each state has its burden," Kerry quipped.

*

Times staff writer Maura Reynolds in Crawford contributed to this report.

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