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'Change' Is Vital Election Theme for Bush, Kerry

The president frames himself as the candidate of new ideas, a departure for an incumbent. It's an attempt to relate to voters' anxieties.

September 12, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — After nearly four years in office, President Bush has settled on a surprising new identity for his campaign's stretch run: he is selling himself as the candidate of change.

On issues from Social Security and healthcare to national defense, Bush now presents his agenda as a response to "changing times" and a "changed world." He also accuses his Democratic rival, Sen. John F. Kerry, of pursuing "the policies of the past."

Bush is relying more on this argument even as Kerry amplifies his efforts to portray the president's proposed second-term agenda as "more of the same," and his own proposals as a sharp change in the country's direction.

These pointed disputes illustrate the priority both sides place on identifying their candidate as a source of change at a time when surveys show about half the public dissatisfied with the country's direction.

Republicans think Bush's arguments have framed the race in a way that will help him win a solid share of voters eager for change -- something presidential incumbents have almost never achieved. "It's a nice contrast to have for an incumbent: We're for new and they're for old," said Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee. "That's the biggest change in the [campaign's] dynamic that has taken place here going into the stretch run."

Kerry advisors agree that Bush will benefit if he can define the choice in those terms. But they say the president, with a record behind him, will have difficulty accomplishing that. "Listen: if they get away with it, it would be a threat," said Tad Devine, a senior Kerry advisor. "I don't think they are going to get away with it."

Typically, challengers define themselves as the agents of change in presidential races; one of the famous signs on the wall of Bill Clinton's war room in 1992 reminded his aides to constantly characterize the choice in that year's election as "change vs. more of the same."

Bush's attempt to depict himself as the candidate of change this year is reminiscent of Clinton's strategy in the 1996 campaign. As he sought reelection, Clinton promoted policies he said represented a "bridge to the 21st century," while contending his Republican challenger, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, was offering "a bridge to the past."

Bush is pursuing a broader and more ambitious agenda -- at home and abroad -- than Clinton ran on in 1996. That may give Bush more evidence for his claim to represent change -- but also provide more targets for Kerry to assail than Dole could find with Clinton.

One senior GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking said Bush was emphasizing the "change" argument less to create a contrast with Kerry than to signal to voters that he understood their anxieties and wanted a mandate for his proposals in a second term.

"This is not a frame that is being discussed because of Kerry," the strategist said. In private, "Bush has said the American people want to know that 'I understand what the country is going through and I have an idea of how to deal with it.' "

Other leading GOP strategists, including Gillespie, see the attempt to identify Bush with the future and Kerry with the past as a key to the campaign's final weeks. The president is now presenting almost all of his significant proposals through this lens.

"Listen, the world in which we live and work is a changing world," Bush said in Missouri last week. "Yet the most fundamental systems -- the tax code and health coverage and pension plans and worker training -- were created for the world of yesterday, not the world of tomorrow. We're going to transform those systems."

Bush uses that argument to support his plan to reform Social Security by allowing workers to divert part of their payroll taxes into accounts they could invest in the stock market, as well as his call for the expansion of tax-favored accounts families could use, in conjunction with catastrophic insurance plans, to pay more of their healthcare costs.

"You'll hear me talking a lot about changing systems to help people," he said Thursday in Pennsylvania.

At the same time, the GOP campaign depicts Kerry's responses to the problems of retirement security and healthcare as backward-looking because they rely primarily on strengthening or expanding existing government programs.

Bush is presenting the choice on national security and foreign policy in virtually identical terms.

He describes his agenda on these fronts, including his decision to invade Iraq and his recent plan to bring home as many as 70,000 troops stationed abroad -- as a systematic effort to respond to the changing threats facing America, crystallized by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Simultaneously, Bush and his allies contend that Kerry backs national security policies based on Cold War-era strategies -- such as emphasizing consultation with allies -- that the administration argues are less relevant after Sept. 11.

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