WASHINGTON — 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.
"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."