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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Foes Jump Gun on Labor Day

Bush and Kerry fire away in full battle mode with personal attacks before the traditional campaign opener. It'll be a fight to the finish.

September 04, 2004|Peter Wallsten and Matea Gold | Times Staff Writers

MOOSIC, Pa. — President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry barreled into the fall campaign Friday, tussling over new job creation numbers and heaving personal attacks in a fierce tenor unlikely to change between now and election day.

The president, fresh off his renomination Thursday night, campaigned in three states he narrowly lost in 2000. He continued to hammer his Democratic opponent as a flip-flopper who would raise taxes and add new layers of federal bureaucracy.

During a two-stop swing through central Ohio, Kerry castigated the Republicans for the tone of their New York convention, questioned Bush's economic stewardship and lashed back at attempts to challenge his fitness as commander in chief.

The candidates and their surrogates have been pounding away with autumn-like intensity for months. And with their conventions behind them, neither side bothered to wait for the traditional Labor Day kickoff to begin the fall campaign.

Indeed, Kerry began firing back almost before the last balloons had settled on the carpeting inside New York's Madison Square Garden, where GOP delegates gathered this week to renominate Bush.

Picking up where he left off at a midnight rally, the Massachusetts senator on Friday laid out a new broadside against Bush's performance on the economy, which he hopes to make the centerpiece of the fall campaign.

"The president and the Republican Party will say anything and do anything in order to try and get elected -- but anything except really take care of middle-class American families that are struggling," Kerry told several dozen neighbors assembled in folding chairs on the front lawn of Mark and Debbie Bickle's modest home in Newark, Ohio.

Kerry was taking his message deep into Republican territory.

Voters in Licking County backed Bush by a 22-point margin in 2000. But Kerry aides pointed to the impending layoff of 784 manufacturing workers at the local Longaberger Co., a maker of handcrafted baskets and other household accessories, to suggest sentiments may be turning.

Outside the Bickle home Friday, Kerry spoke with two Longaberger workers who are losing their jobs, as well as two other residents recently laid off from other companies.

"I honestly don't know how you can be president of the United States for four years and see people losing their health insurance, see companies getting squeezed, and not do anything about it," he said.

The Democrat pounced on a Labor Department report issued Friday, saying the creation of 144,000 jobs in August -- smaller than the number needed to keep up with population growth -- showed Bush's economic policies were a failure.

"My friends, at the rate that this administration is creating jobs, you're not going to [gain] one job in the state of Ohio until the year 2011," he said, noting Bush will be the first president since Herbert Hoover to end his administration with a net loss of jobs.

"I don't think this is something to celebrate. I think it's something to get to work on. I think it's something to change."

Kerry promised to boost employment by providing tax credits to companies that keep jobs in the United States, reducing healthcare costs, pursuing research in renewable fuels and investing in science, medicine and other segments of the economy.

Bush was also in hostile political territory on Friday, campaigning in northeastern Pennsylvania, which Democrat Al Gore overwhelmingly carried four years ago. Bush cited the same job-creation numbers and came to precisely the opposite conclusion.

Speaking at a minor league baseball stadium in Moosic, Pa., Bush said the jobs created and the dip in the nation's unemployment rate -- from 5.5% to 5.4% -- were proof that his economic policies were working.

"Our growing economy is spreading prosperity and opportunity, and nothing will hold us back," he said. As he was onstage at the GOP convention the night before, Bush spoke from a stage surrounded by supporters on all sides.

At stops Friday in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Iowa, the president listed what he said were the hallmarks of the "ownership society" he envisions, such as creating personal investment accounts as part of Social Security.

"There is a clear difference in philosophies in this race," he said. "He is for expanding government. I am for expanding opportunity."

But as Bush and his strategists hoped for a surge of momentum coming out of this week's convention, other news threatened to bump him off the front pages: Hurricane Frances bearing down on Florida, dozens of children killed by terrorists at a Russian school, and the pending heart surgery of former President Clinton.

Bush, traveling with his wife, Laura, mentioned all three in succession at the outset of his appearance outside Milwaukee, drawing cheers as he sent along his prayers.

Though Bush took a more measured tone than Kerry, he wasted little time before ripping into the Democrat's voting record, his criticism of the war in Iraq and his proposals to eliminate tax cuts on the wealthy.

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