Tobacco States Fume Over Bush Remarks
President Says He Opposes a Buyout for Growers, Angering Some From His Party
By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page A04
A campaign swing comment by President Bush opposing a buyout for hard-pressed tobacco growers has set off a political firestorm in the generally Republican states where relief for the farmers is a potent political issue.
Tobacco state lawmakers from his own party responded with confusion and anger to Bush's comments, which they said took them by surprise.
Their concerns sharpened last week when presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) jumped into the fray by saying in Kentucky that he supports the buyout. He said tobacco grower assistance is essential, along with passage of a bill to give the Food and Drug Administration regulatory authority over tobacco products.
Kerry said he supports twinning the two bills -- a proposal that failed in Congress last year but was widely discussed as the only way to eventually get either one passed.
"I've heard from any number of good Republicans who said they'll either stay home or vote Democrat in the fall if the White House doesn't change its position," said Rep. Virgil H. Goode Jr. (R-Va.) on Friday. "It's critical for the White House to move fast."
Bush made his comments in Ohio earlier this month in response to a general question about tobacco and regulation. Although many in his party strongly support the tobacco grower buyout, the president said he did not.
"They've got the quota system in place -- the allotment system -- and I don't think that needs to be changed," Bush said.
Support for a buyout is almost universal among tobacco growers. Changes in the market and increasing competition from foreign-grown tobacco have already put thousands of U.S. tobacco farmers out of business, and they have looked to a buyout of the government-controlled quota system as the only way to stay solvent.
The system was set up in the 1930s and has controlled the tobacco supply since. But now the quotas are so low that farmers say they cannot survive without federal help that would pay them to eliminate the system.
The president's comments could be especially damaging in North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, where tobacco growers and the many businessmen who depend on them are still a potent political force.
In North Carolina, the Democratic candidate for Senate, former chief of staff to President Clinton, Erskine B. Bowles, has promised that passing a buyout, coupled with FDA regulation, would be one of his top priorities. His Republican opponent, Rep. Richard Burr, has also strongly supported a grower buyout but has opposed the FDA proposal, and their different approaches have become an issue in the campaign.
Reflecting the sensitivity of the issue, Burr said Friday that "clearly the president is wrong" on the need for a buyout.
"Just like the tobacco growers in North Carolina, I'm mad about what the president said," Burr said. "I remain hopeful that, in that statement, we didn't hear any threat that a buyout bill would not be considered by this White House."
Bowles said that he was "amazed" by Bush's comments and went on the offensive last week, saying his opponent was not fighting hard for tobacco growers.
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