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.
"I just think it's sad that Richard Burr and his colleagues haven't even educated the president on the devastating effect of these cuts," he said.
Burr, Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) have all said they have spoken with top White House officials and are trying to speak directly with Bush on the subject. Asked Friday whether the White House intended to clarify Bush's comments, spokesman Trent Duffy said, "We have nothing to add to what he said."
It remained unclear last week why Bush apparently opposes a bill so broadly supported by members of his party, but some close to the issue say the question of how to pay for the buyout is a possible reason why.
Burr was part of an effort last year in the House to finance the $12 billion buyout through an existing excise tax on tobacco products -- money that now goes into the general fund -- but that plan picked up limited support. A more widely endorsed plan would have tobacco companies pay for it. The Philip Morris Cos., the nation's largest tobacco company, supports relying on corporate funds, while the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. argues that it should be done through excise taxes, if at all.
Bush's apparent rejection of a buyout presented Kerry with an opportunity. "Last week, George Bush said the current tobacco quota system is fine and didn't need to be changed, a surprising view considering the broad support for both a buyout and FDA regulation of cigarette manufacturing," said Kerry spokesman Phil Singer. "John Kerry, who supported tobacco buyout legislation in 1998, disagrees. He believes a quota buyout of tobacco farmers and quota owners is important for rural farmers throughout the South and is encouraged by ongoing tobacco buyout negotiations in Congress."
Keith Parrish, a tobacco grower from eastern North Carolina and chief executive officer of the National Tobacco Growers Association, which represents the state grower associations, said the growers' response to Bush's comments has been broadly negative.
"I've been up to Washington many times to discuss the grower problems, and we were told this issue was on [the president's] radar screen," Parrish said. "We were encouraged.
"Now growers have a very different feeling," he said. "Democrats are making statements that this needs to happen, and growers are watching and will vote depending on who they think will bring this thing home."
Kay Fisher, another North Carolina tobacco grower, was more blunt in her reaction to Bush's statement. "Right now, we feel totally let down," she said.
Both Fisher and Parrish said most of the tobacco growers they know are ready to accept FDA regulation as the political price for the quota buyout -- a significant change from grower opinion just several years ago. Efforts to pass a grower buyout on its own have failed, as have bills to grant the FDA regulatory authority over tobacco products. Many in Congress believe the only way to get either one passed is to join them together.
"The buyout deal has to get done and, realistically, it will only get done in Congress along with FDA regulations," Parrish said. "Most growers understand that and can live with it."