ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., Oct. 19 -- President Bush pivoted sharply to domestic issues Tuesday, parrying Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry's charges that the president had bungled the flu-vaccine program and would undermine Social Security in a second term.
With two weeks to go before Election Day, Kerry, fighting to reduce a small deficit in opinion polls, condemned Bush's policies on health care and economic matters. Bush largely dropped the offensive he started Monday against Kerry's credentials on security issues, moving quickly to defend his domestic record and charging that Kerry was willing to make outlandish assertions to win election.
Kerry, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., likened the incumbent to Depression-era President Herbert Hoover and accused Bush of becoming "the first president to launch an all-out assault on Social Security" since its beginning. "On Nov. 2, Social Security is on the ballot," Kerry said. Blaming Bush's tax cuts for reducing reserves that could help the retirement program, he said the election is "a choice between one candidate who will save Social Security and another who will undermine it."
Here in Florida, a crucial state with a high proportion of senior citizen voters, Bush made efforts to reassure voters that he would not allow cuts in government payments for retirees or near-retirees, or permit a military draft, as Kerry has also charged. "We will keep the promise of Social Security for all our seniors," he said. "We will not have a draft; we'll keep the all-volunteer army. With your help on November 2nd, the people of America will reject the politics of fear, and vote for an agenda of hope and opportunity and security for all Americans."
The two men dueled similarly over this season's shortage of influenza vaccines. "If you can't get flu vaccines to Americans, how are you going to protect them against bioterrorism?" Kerry said in an interview aired Tuesday on National Public Radio. "If you can't get flu vaccines to Americans, what kind of health care program are you running?"
Bush asserted at the beginning of his first speech Tuesday that his administration is doing all it can about the vaccine. "I know there are some here who are worried about the flu season," he said at a rally of several thousand supporters at a baseball stadium here. "I want to assure them that our government is doing everything possible to help older Americans and children get their shots, despite the major manufacturing defect that caused this problem. We have millions of vaccine doses on hand for the most vulnerable Americans, and millions more will be shipped in the coming weeks."
Kerry aides said that in shifting to domestic concerns, Bush was responding to recent polls that show him with a narrow lead over Kerry but also show majorities of Americans saying the country is headed in the wrong direction. Bush aides said the president was not being defensive on domestic matters but rather tarring Kerry as a fear-monger using "old-style scare tactics" and as a candidate who would say anything to get elected -- a charge Bush used effectively against Al Gore four years ago.
In Dayton, Ohio, late Tuesday, Kerry told a crowd at a baseball field that he had just spoken to former president Bill Clinton, who is recuperating from quadruple-bypass surgery. Kerry told the throng that Clinton said, " 'You know when the other guy wants [voters] to stop thinking, and he's trying to scare [them] into not thinking, and you want Americans to think about their future, it's clear who you ought to be voting for.' "
On a bus tour through western and central Florida -- an area traveled heavily by both campaigns -- Bush repeated his charge, unveiled during the debates, that Kerry is a liberal trying to escape his 20-year Senate record. He turned his debate jab, that Kerry could run from his record but not hide, into a chant. Bush used the phrase "he can run but he cannot hide" five times here and four more times in New Port Richey, and Bush crowds have sometimes been coached to join in the chant.
It is unclear how potent an issue that the loss of half of the nation's supply of flu vaccine will be. The shortage was caused by manufacturing problems at one of two suppliers. Kerry has tried to link the shortage to an overall problem with health care coverage and has charged that Bush ignored warnings that could have prevented the shortage. Bush has tied the chronic vaccine problem to the fear of excessive medical liability lawsuits.
Kerry, while concerned mostly with Social Security, health care and the economy, also moved to defend his stance on terrorism, which Bush questioned harshly Monday. "Have no doubt about it, we will hunt down, capture or kill the terrorists wherever they are in the world," Kerry said.
Similarly, Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, preceded a talk about domestic matters with a denunciation of Bush as "incompetent" to lead a war on terrorism. "He's led us from the edge of greatness to the edge of a cliff," Edwards said in New Hampshire.
Bush did not entirely drop his national security criticism of Kerry on Tuesday, saying his "contradictions call into question his credibility and ability to lead our nation." Recalling a statement by Kerry in September 2003 that "it would be irresponsible to abandon our troops by voting against" a spending bill for Iraq, Bush noted: "And then, of course, just one month later, he did exactly the opposite."
Still, Bush was markedly more defensive on domestic matters such as Social Security. Ending his day before thousands of listeners at a retirement village here, Bush said: "Nobody is going to take away the checks of those who are now on Social Security, and baby boomers like me, we're in pretty good shape when it comes to Social Security, but we need to worry about our children and grandchildren."
The Bush campaign responded to Kerry's latest salvo on Social Security by saying his "head in the sand approach" would bankrupt the program, which without changes will eventually run out of money. "He has advocated changes to the system in the past but has now decided that it is more in his political interest to scare seniors," spokesman Steve Schmidt said.
The back and forth on Social Security came as the Social Security Administration announced that the 50 million program recipients will get a 2.7 percent payment increase in January, although that will be partially offset by a 17 percent increase in Medicare premiums announced earlier.
The states where the candidates campaigned Tuesday, Florida and Pennsylvania, are considered two of the three most important battlegrounds on Nov. 2. Vice President Cheney campaigned in the third, Ohio. At a meeting of supporters in an airplane hangar outside Columbus, he said in response to a question about election fraud that he expected a more comfortable Bush win. "I'm one of those who believes our margin is going to be bigger this time than those 537 votes in Florida," he said.
Cheney said he's optimistic the country will see "a good, strong, hard-fought, clean election" in which "everybody's vote will be counted," no voters will be intimidated, and only eligible voters are registered. Cheney was also visiting the Cincinnati area's Hamilton County, where local newspapers reported that at least two absentee ballots had been sent out without Kerry's name on them. Election officials said a printing error accidentally replaced Kerry's name instead of Ralph Nader's with the words "Candidate Removed." They said the mistake was limited to a handful of ballots.
As he does almost daily, Cheney told supporters that the biggest danger facing the nation is that terrorists hit a U.S. city with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons capable of killing hundreds of thousands of Americans, "not just 3,000." Cheney said he did not think Kerry "was ever comfortable with the use of U.S. military force."
Edwards responded to Cheney's comments at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. "The problem is you don't keep this country safe by giving a speech," he said. "You keep this country safe by what you do."
Romano is traveling with Kerry. Staff writers Michael Laris, with Cheney, and John Wagner, with Edwards, contributed to this report.