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Kerry Gets Tougher on Bush

The Democratic challenger says the president's domestic policies hark back to a 'separate but equal' era in America.

September 10, 2004|Michael Finnegan | Time Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — After days of sparring with President Bush over Iraq, Sen. John F. Kerry assailed the White House's record on poverty, civil rights and healthcare Thursday as he sought to regain momentum by drawing sharp contrasts with the administration on such issues.

Kerry pounded Bush for soaring health costs at a morning stop in Iowa, then made a more sweeping indictment of the president's domestic policies in a sharp-edged speech to African Americans at the National Baptist Convention in New Orleans.

Adding racial overtones to a slogan used by his running mate, Sen. John Edwards, to describe the nation's economic divide, Kerry accused Bush of "taking us back to two Americas -- separate and unequal."

The last phrase refers to a core doctrine of segregationist laws -- "separate but equal" public schools, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional 50 years ago.

"Our cities and our communities are being torn apart by forces that are just as divisive and destructive as 'Jim Crow' [segregation laws]," Kerry said. He cited "crumbling schools that are robbing our children of their potential, rising poverty, rising crime, drugs and violence."

The Democratic presidential nominee recalled that Republicans had recently mocked him and Edwards for talking of "two Americas."

"Mr. President, I ask you to spend some time with struggling families in the hills of Appalachia, or in public housing in Detroit, or in the barrios of East L.A., and then tell me that the journey to build one America is finished," Kerry told his audience. "Our job, between now and November, is to end the division between the fortunate America and the forgotten America."

Kerry's language was part of a retooled and more aggressive campaign message he had adopted since a cadre of new aides joined his staff in an effort to help reverse his slide in the polls.

Over and over, Kerry punctuated jabs at Bush with his new refrain on the president's middle initial.

"The next time you hear George W. Bush, remember the W stands for wrong," Kerry said. "Wrong choices for Americans, wrong direction for America, wrong leadership for our nation."

In a series of direct appeals to African Americans, a crucial Democratic constituency, Kerry said Bush "scorns economic justice and affirmative action" and "traffics in the politics of division."

He ridiculed Bush's description of himself as a "compassionate conservative." Invoking the good Samaritan parable from the Gospel of St. Luke, he likened Bush to one of the two men who ignored a robbed and beaten traveler before a third came to the rescue.

"For four years, George W. Bush may have talked about compassion, but he's walked right by," Kerry told the cheering crowd. "He's seen people in need, but he's crossed over to the other side of the street."

Kerry urged the Baptist ministers and other church activists to remember that the next president would name "as many as four Supreme Court justices."

"John Edwards and I know that the whole future of civil rights and affirmative action may hinge on a single Supreme Court vote," he said.

Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry's speech "was filled with misleading, baseless attacks and attempts to divide Americans."

He added: "Kerry's pessimistic vision of America stands in stark contrast to the president's agenda for a safer world and a more hopeful America."

At an earlier campaign forum in Iowa, Kerry said the nation's healthcare system was "imploding on itself," and suggested Bush had failed to take steps needed to fix it.

Speaking to several hundred voters at a Des Moines hospital, Kerry renewed his criticism of Bush for the 17% rise in Medicare premiums announced last week and accused the president of favoring drug companies and insurers over patients.

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