A day after their final debate, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry began a sprint to the finish in their presidential race with campaign appearances in Las Vegas, where the two candidates focused on health care and other domestic issues.
At a rally attended by Republican governors, Bush denounced the Massachusetts senator's health care plan as a "government program" that would hurt small businesses.
Kerry addressed a convention of the American Association of Retired People in Las Vegas, using the forum to promote his health care proposals and other programs of interest to senior citizens, while attacking Bush's tax cuts and his 2003 Medicare law.
Saying that "we need a fresh start in this great country of ours," Kerry told the convention that he would be a president who fights for the middle class, as opposed to Bush, who he said defends the interests of the wealthy and powerful.
"Over the last four years of George Bush's presidency . . . the share of the tax burden of the middle class has gone up, while the share of the tax burden of the wealthiest people in America has gone down," Kerry said. "That's the great difference between George Bush and me. Both of us are at the top. He believes you ought to fight to protect the people at the top. I believe I didn't need that tax cut but there are a lot of folks in the middle of America who did. And we deserve a president who fights for them."
Speaking to the AARP about an hour after First Lady Laura Bush, Kerry told thousands of seniors at the convention that Bush's new Medicare law is failure and denies them access to the less expensive prescription drugs they need and deserve.
"The truth is, after doing nothing to lower the cost of prescription drugs for you, the president is now telling us that he has solved the problem," Kerry said. "Right -- and those weapons of mass destruction will be found any day."
Bush told supporters today that Kerry had tried to "obscure his approach" to such issues as health care during the debate.
"Once again last night with a straight face, the senator tried to say his health care plan is not a government plan," Bush said. "Yet, 22 million people would be enrolled in a government program under his plan, the largest expansion of government health care ever."
Bush disputed Kerry's claims that his plan would help small businesses, saying, "I want to make health care more available and affordable by helping small businesses, not saddling them with a bunch of government rules."
Kerry insisted last night that that his health care proposal does not represent a government takeover, but offers "broader competition to allow you to buy into the same health care plan that senators and congressmen give themselves."
Bush also attacked Kerry today for his comments clarifying what he meant when he said in last week's debate that preemptive action by the United States against other countries should meet a "global test." Kerry said last night he has "never suggested a test where we turn over our security to any nation." But "it makes sense" to "pass a sort of truth standard," he said. "That's how you gain legitimacy" with Americans and the world. "But I will never fail to protect the United States of America."
Bush told the rally, "The senator now says we have to pass some international truth standard. The truth is we should never turn over America's national security decisions to international bodies" or foreign leaders.
Earlier, Bush told reporters on Air Force One that he "enjoyed" last night's debate. "The debate phase of the campaign is over and now it's a sprint to the finish," he said. "My spirits are high. I'm enthusiastic about my chances."
He dismissed polls showing that Kerry won the debate, saying, "Well, the voters will decide." He added, "There's only one opinion that matters, and that's the opinion of the American people on November the 2nd."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was traveling with Bush to Las Vegas, said, "On substance, the president won, and that's what the people think about when they go into the ballot booth."
According to several snap polls after the debate, Kerry won handily, giving him a clean sweep of the three debates. A CBS News poll of undecided voters showed Kerry winning the debate by 39 percent to 25 percent, but 36 percent believed it was a tie. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll gave it to Kerry by 52 percent to 39 percent. Kerry also came out ahead in a Democracy Corps poll, 41 percent to 36 percent.
The day's campaign appearances came amid efforts by both sides to spin the results of last night's debate in Tempe, Ariz., and knock down the opponent's statements.
On morning news programs, Democrats defended Kerry from a complaint by Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Cheney, that Kerry had taken a cheap political shot by invoking the Cheneys' lesbian daughter in comments about gay rights.
Republicans were put on the defensive by Bush's erroneous claim in the debate that he had never said he was not worried about Osama bin Laden.
Kerry and Bush had been asked at the debate by moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News whether they believed homosexuality was "a choice." Bush answered, "I just don't know." Kerry responded, "We're all God's children, Bob, and I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was, she's being who she was born as. I think if you talk to anybody, it's not choice." He was referring to Mary Cheney, an aide in her father's campaign who has been open about being a lesbian.
Lynne Cheney said last night in Pennsylvania that Kerry "is not a good man." Saying she was speaking as "a pretty indignant mom," she said without elaborating, "what a cheap and tawdry political trick."
A Kerry spokeswoman, Debra DeShong, said on CNN this morning that Vice President Cheney himself had talked about his daughter's sexual orientation on the campaign trail and that Kerry last night was merely "telling the American people that gay Americans are part of our lives, part of our families and they should be respected."
In a brief statement issued later by his campaign, Kerry said, "I love my daughters. They love their daughter. I was trying to say something positive about the way strong families deal with this issue."
In an interview with ABC Radio, Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, said Lynne Cheney had "overreacted" to Kerry's debate remarks and "treated it as if it's shameful to have this discussion."
Elizabeth Edwards added: "I think that it indicates a certain degree of shame with respect to her daughter's sexual preferences. . . . It makes me really sad that that's Lynne's response."
At a rally today in Fort Myers, Fla., Vice President Cheney stepped into the fray, calling himself an "angry father" and citizen as he launched a post-debate push toward Nov. 2 with a fierce attack on Kerry's character, Washington Post staff writer Michael Laris reported.
Following the lead of his wife, Cheney delivered a sharp rebuke over Kerry's reference to his daughter. "You saw a man who will say and do anything to get elected. And I'm not speaking just as a father here, though I am a pretty angry father, but as a citizen," Cheney said.
"What last night so clearly revealed is that John Kerry is not a man of strong character," Cheney said to chanting fans at Gulf Coast University. He hammered Kerry as a man without the fortitude to lead in dangerous times, calling him a "soft-on-defense liberal," and said the senator is trying to run from his record.
"He is trying to hide it, to cover it up using a little tough talk," Cheney said. He called the Democratic challenger "totally deceitful" on the issue of medical liability reform.
The campaign also sought to refocus some attention from the sharp debate over the administration's decision to invade Iraq last year. "In 1991, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and stood poised to dominate the Persian Gulf, John Kerry voted against America's sending troops to expel him," Cheney said, adding later, "He is not a steadfast leader." Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and were expelled by a U.S.-led coalition in early 1991.
In his speech to the AARP, Kerry sought to capitalize on misgivings among seniors about Bush's Medicare law.
AARP, a powerful organization that lobbies on behalf of seniors, broke with Democratic allies in Congress and endorsed the new Medicare law in 2003, drawing the wrath of Kerry and many other longtime supporters.
"The AARP tried to work with the president, but in the end, the president was not working for America's seniors," Kerry said. "Maybe that's why he would not even show up to defend his bill." Bush was in Las Vegas, but turned down an invitation to speak at the convention.
Since working to enact the law, AARP officials have criticized the implementation of it and Bush himself for not allowing seniors to import less costly drugs from Canada. Kerry voted against the Medicare law, and polls show a majority of seniors oppose it. The crowd, which appeared cool to the new law, cheered Kerry loudly, especially when he railed against the president for favoring corporations over middle-class workers. Republicans once considered the law a political goldmine, but worry Bush will not benefit at all because the bulk of the new prescription drug benefit does not kick in until 2006.
Kerry vowed to rewrite the law if elected president and immediately implement two cost-savings measures: allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prices with drug companies and permitting seniors to import less expensive medicines. Bush opposed both ideas, as did the Republican Congress.
At the convention, Kerry rolled out a new campaign speech, packed full of populist rhetoric and sharp indictments of the Bush administration. Kerry ridiculed the president for saying in last night's debate that healthy people should forgo flu vaccinations as way to save supplies for the sick and elderly.
"Sounds just like his health care plan: hope and pray you do not get sick." An overarching theme of the speech -- and the campaign's strategy for the final days before the election -- was that Bush is disconnected not only from the problems facing Americans, but from reality altogether.
"He has spent this entire campaign trying to make us believe the unbelievable," Kerry said. He added later: "The president just does not seem to get it. He can spin until he's dizzy, but at the end of the day, who does he think the American people are going to believe? George Bush or their own eyes?"
As he enters the campaign's final days, Kerry is adjusting his strategy somewhat, with plans to deliver a series of domestic speeches on the economy, health care and jobs and dial down the personal attacks, aides said.
But Kerry is also planning to intensify attacks on what he calls Bush's disconnect from reality. In a new ad airing in Ohio, Kerry lambasted Treasury Secretary John Snow for recently claiming job losses are a "myth."
The campaign says Bush is particularly vulnerable to attacks that he is disconnected from the realities of Iraq, the economy and job losses.
Kerry planned to conclude his day with a late-night rally tonight in Des Moines, Iowa, one of several battleground states in the upper Midwest. He plans at least two stops each day until Nov. 2 in hopes of building on the momentum he earned in the debates.
The Kerry campaign said its internal polls and focus groups showed the candidate making significant gains on character issues, such as honesty and leadership, two areas in which Bush has often enjoyed a commanding edge.
Mike Donilon, a top Kerry adviser, said Kerry's improvement on the "character dimension" has helped solidify support among independent and undecided voters, and "essentially undo" perceptions that the Democratic nominee is a flip-flopper who cannot be trusted in a time of war.
Kerry laced his debate answers with frequent references to God and scripture as part of a strategy to appeal to religious voters who are ubiquitous in many of the battleground states.
Early next week, Kerry will deliver a speech elaborating on his values and beliefs, a top aide said.
Stanley Greenberg, who conducts polls for Kerry, said Bush lost the debate by about five points, but lost more ground on the character issues. Greenberg called this the "most striking" result of the debate.
Kerry and Bush strategists largely agree on the battlefield, and who is winning in each state -- save Ohio. While the Bush campaign says it is winning Ohio, Kerry's internal polling shows the president losing by about five points and fading, according to two aides. Kerry will campaign in Ohio this weekend and many more times before election day.
The Kerry campaign is confident that it is winning Pennsylvania and Michigan by comfortable margins and pulling slightly ahead in Florida, a must-win state for Bush. The Kerry campaign's polling shows Bush leading in Iowa and West Virginia, and running about even in Wisconsin.
Kerry, however, has largely failed to erode the president's strong support among rural voters, especially in the upper Midwest, and among the devoutly religious, according to Greenberg. Democrats credit Bush's support among the religious and rural for small, but significant, leads in Iowa, which Gore won in 2000, and West Virginia, as well as stronger-than-expected numbers in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Edwards stumped today in Iowa, where he focused his post-debate comments largely on health care, Washington Post staff writer Chris L. Jenkins reported. As he has since his own debate with Cheney early last week, Edwards blasted his Republican rivals for their policies in Iraq and at home, while also stressing elements of Kerry's plan to support stem-cell research and offer health care to all Americans.
"You look at the health care crisis in this country -- this president has no solution. All he's offering is more of the same," Edwards said to a group of several hundred Sioux City residents, who asked several questions about health care and Medicare costs.
In a break from his normal routine, Edwards traveled by bus through Iowa today, before a flight to Des Moines where he will meet Kerry for a joint rally tonight.
VandeHei reported from Las Vegas.