Presidential candidates try to shift focus to what's safe ground for them

Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2004

WASHINGTON When facts don't cooperate with rhetoric, candidates can change their position or change the subject. As they square off for this year's presidential election, President Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry seem to be doing both.

Faced with high voter anxiety about job losses, Bush has been emphasizing his role as a wartime commander in chief. Kerry, meanwhile, is trying the opposite: shifting the focus to the economy, perhaps safer ground for a Democrat this year.

When the four-term Massachusetts senator found his patriotism and veracity challenged by Republicans for suggesting that many foreign leaders preferred him to Bush, Kerry responded: ''They're trying to change the subject from jobs, health care, the environment and Social Security.''

Kerry did exactly what he was accusing Republicans of doing: changing the subject.

''Kerry cannot win on national security and foreign issues. Events on the ground could lose it for Bush in those areas if there is some terrible reversal abroad but nothing Kerry does or says,'' said Alan J. Lichtman, an American University history professor who specializes in the presidency.

Added Lichtman: ''I think voters need to take not a grain of salt, but a small mountain of salt, and apply it to everything said during this campaign.''

The Bush campaign has unleashed an intensive campaign of advertisements, speeches and media interviews questioning Kerry's fitness to serve as president and accusing him of being a flip-flopper.

''Senator Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue,'' Bush told a room of laughing contributors earlier this month.

The presumptive Democratic nominee was clearly trying to have it both ways when trying to explain voting for an $87 billion aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan, contingent on repeal of Bush's tax cuts, and late voting against the request, without the tax provision. ''I actually did vote for his $87 billion, before I voted against it,'' Kerry said.

The Bush campaign quickly seized on the remarks as further evidence of Kerry's waffling and rushed the clip into a political commercial that aired late last week.

But Kerry isn't the only one vulnerable to criticism for changing positions for political expediency.

The president talks like a free trader but sometimes acts like a protectionist. His advocacy of free trade didn't stop him from slapping tariffs on steel and Canadian lumber imports, supporting agricultural subsidies and from moving against China last week to help protect U.S. semiconductor manufacturers.

Kerry is the exact opposite. He talks like a protectionist, championing measures on the campaign trail to stanch the flow of jobs overseas. But he voted for every trade-liberalizing pact since the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, agreements labor leaders claim contributed to those job losses.

Kerry has a habit of speaking out and finding his words coming back to haunt him.

But Bush also has seen words turn into political boomerangs, including his assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, that Saddam was seeking uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons and his 2000 campaign criticism of ''nation building'' and promises to cut federal spending.

Bush also initially opposed the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, then later became one of its strongest advocates. He also opposed creation of an independent commission to investigate the Sept. 11 terror attacks, only to later support it.

No one is accusing Bush of ignoring the economy. After all, his father lost re-election in part because of the perception of such neglect.

''We've said this is going to come down to a choice on these two big issues facing the country,'' said re-election campaign spokesperson Nicolle Devenish. And those big issues are Iraq-terrorism and the economy.

Democrats agree on the issues. They just want to make sure they can keep the economy as No. 1.

Meanwhile, there's little doubt that Bush and his advisers wouldn't mind diverting attention from the fact that, despite other signs of recovery, job creation remains nearly flat following the loss of more than 2 million manufacturing jobs on Bush's watch. It's a vital issue in the industrial states of the Midwest and the Northeast, regions expected to be pivotal in the 2004 election.

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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