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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Medicare's Well-Being Suddenly a Key Issue

Bush boasts of reforms without mentioning a record premium increase revealed Friday and seized on by Kerry.

September 05, 2004|Peter Wallsten and Matea Gold | Times Staff Writers

BROADVIEW HEIGHTS, Ohio — Medicare emerged as a key point of contention Saturday in the race for the White House, as President Bush defended his efforts to improve it while Sen. John F. Kerry blasted the administration for promising fixes, only to approve the largest premium hike in the program's 40-year history.

With new polls showing Bush opening up a double-digit lead over his Democratic opponent, Kerry has come under pressure from allies to conduct a more aggressive campaign. Kerry aides said they thought the race would again tighten, and that they were confident Bush is especially vulnerable on the domestic front.

Bush told voters jammed into a gym in the Cleveland suburb of Broadview Heights that reforms his administration pushed through last year would provide seniors with healthcare screenings and a prescription drug benefit in the next two years. But he did not mention the 17% Medicare premium increase for millions of elderly and disabled patients that his administration imposed a day earlier. It takes effect next year.

"We went to Washington, D.C., with the idea of solving problems," Bush said, adding later: "We have done the job when it comes to improving healthcare for our seniors."

Kerry, also campaigning in the battleground state of Ohio, accused Bush of reneging on a pledge he made Thursday in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

"On the day after saying, 'We're going to strengthen Medicare, ' Medicare premiums go up for senior citizens 17% -- the largest increase in Medicare premiums in 40 years," Kerry said at a rally in Akron. His remark provoked a round of boos from his crowd, and Kerry then invoked two of the corporations that for Democrats are shorthand for the claim that the president's policies unduly favor big business. .

"Let me ask you something: Who are they going to send the bill to? Are they going to send the bill to Halliburton? Are they going to send the bill to Ken Lay at Enron? You bet they're not. They're going to send the bill to our senior citizens."

Kerry planned to reinforce his message with a 30-second television ad that showed Bush making his convention pledge to help seniors, and says, "The very next day, George Bush imposes the biggest Medicare premium increase in history while prescription drug costs still skyrocket."

The back-and-forth on Medicare came as Republicans were buoyed by the second poll in as many days showing Bush holding an 11% lead nationally, coming off the party's four-day convention in New York.

As he took turns shooting clay pigeons with former Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) in Edinburgh, Ohio, Kerry said he was unconcerned about the polls. "We're doing good," he said. "They're going to get a bounce out of the convention, but we'll be coming back."

Even before the GOP convention, Kerry was on the defensive because of ads that challenged his service record in Vietnam and criticized his subsequent protests against the war. The ads were sponsored by a group of Vietnam veterans opposing Kerry.

As part of the Kerry campaign's new aggressive response to the ads, several Democrats campaigning with him Saturday sharply derided Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney's Vietnam-era choices.

The hardest hit came from Rep. Ted Strickland of Ohio, who contrasted Kerry's tour of duty with the Navy "in the jungles of Vietnam" with Bush's days "as a cheerleader at Yale University."

After graduating from Yale, Bush served with the Air National Guard in two states. Critics have charged he joined the Guard to avoid being sent to Vietnam and noted that the nature of his service in Alabama has never been fully accounted.

As recently as Thursday night in Ohio, Kerry had launched some of the attacks on his opponent's military records himself. In reference to Cheney, who received multiple deferments that kept him out of military service, Kerry said the voters could decide "whether five deferments makes someone more qualified than two tours of duty."

The comments by Strickland and others seemed intended to tarnish the administration's credentials on defense and national security issues -- which polls have shown is its strong suit among voters -- while Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, hit Bush on healthcare and the economy.

The Democrats received a small assist in these efforts Saturday from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opened the Republican convention Monday night with glowing praise of Bush's national security record. McCain said Medicare premiums are "just too high for low-income families to deal with."

"The Medicare increases are going to have to be discussed," McCain said to reporters as he appeared with Cheney at a campaign event in Roswell, N.M. "We can't have continued increases along that level."

The issue is politically potent in several battleground states, such as Ohio and Florida, where seniors make up large segments of the electorate.

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