The battle between Sen. John F. Kerry and Washington's mainline business groups ratcheted up yesterday, when the Kerry campaign assembled a half-dozen executives to declare their support for the Democratic ticket, even if a former trial lawyer has second billing.
Since Kerry named Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as his running mate, the largest, best-financed business groups have assailed the choice as an affront to efforts to rein in the cost of litigation. But a succession of executives organized yesterday welcomed Edwards as a moderate, fiscal conservative who will bolster business support for the Democrats. Media mogul Barry Diller, a longtime Democratic donor who heads InterActive Corp., said a "mythology" would develop about a Kerry-Edwards anti-business bias if it were not combated immediately. (Diller is a member of The Washington Post Co. board.)
"Clearly there's a very aggressive effort to create an anti-business bogeyman out of this ticket," charged Peter Chernin, chief operating officer of media conglomerate News Corp. The full-throated response illustrates how seriously the Kerry camp takes its own tack to the political center, observers said. Supporters of the Massachusetts senator hope a few high-profile business backers will lend the Democratic ticket an aura of sobriety.
"We view this as a responsible ticket that will run a responsible administration," said Warren Spector, president of Bear, Stearns & Co., a large Wall Street investment firm.
President Bush's campaign has sought to use support from business groups to paint Kerry and Edwards as extremists.
"John Edwards as a trial lawyer and a confirmed member of the left wing of the Democratic Party only reinforces Kerry's anti-business agenda," said Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt.
In truth, changes in the economy -- both at home and abroad -- have fragmented the politics of business. Kerry aides concede most business executives will stand behind Bush, who lowered income taxes, promised to eliminate the estate tax, trimmed back regulations and slashed taxes on capital gains and dividends.
"Business is going to continue to support the Bush administration because of what he did to our taxes," said Kendig Kneen, owner of Al-jon Inc., a metal processing equipment maker in Iowa. But many small manufacturers, buffeted by international competition, say they like Edwards's aggressive trade protection message. Fredrick Reese, who heads WCI Inc., an association of 2,500 small businesses in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, said his organization for the first time will try to register employees to vote and to talk up the trade issue.
Some executives have complained that the slippage of U.S. standing in world opinion has hurt sales of U.S. products. Some Wall Street bankers say a budget deficit that will exceed $400 billion this year has undermined confidence in the U.S. government, financial markets and the dollar.
"If I ran my company in the red for four years, I wouldn't expect to be in my job," said John Thompson, chairman of Symantec Corp., a major software company in California.
Holt said he was not concerned. The assault by business groups "is a significant blow to Kerry's argument that he has a viable economic policy," he said.