Sen. John F. Kerry and President Bush escalated a fight Thursday over values that is increasingly coloring the election-year debate heading into the national conventions.
Kerry and his new running mate, Sen. John Edwards, challenged Bush's values and honesty on several fronts, as the Democratic duo rallied an overflow crowd at an airport hangar here before flying to New York for what the campaign called the biggest presidential fundraiser in Democratic Party history. The star-studded event at Radio City Music Hall raised more than $7 million.
"They can talk about values. They can talk about what they believe in, but it's a different thing to put your life on the line for the men around you," Edwards said at a morning rally here, prompting the crowd to scream, "Kerry, Kerry!"
Kerry is a decorated Vietnam War veteran; Bush served stateside in the National Guard and has drawn criticism from Kerry and others for an undocumented gap in his military service record.
In his fourth campaign rally as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, and first of the day, Edwards focused mostly on economic anxiety and what he called Democratic values of social fairness. But the senator from North Carolina also continued his party's assault on Bush's truthfulness about the war in Iraq, the budget deficits and domestic policies. "You can take this to the bank: When John Kerry is president of the United States, he will tell the American people the truth," Edwards said.
At the fundraiser, Kerry praised speakers and performers, some of whom lambasted Bush as a liar, "thug" and killer. Singer John Mellencamp sang an anti-Bush song called "Texas Bandito," in which he called the president "another cheap thug who sacrifices our young." Actress Whoopi Goldberg repeatedly referred to Edwards as "Kid" and made a crude wordplay on the president's name.
Kerry said every performer conveyed the "heart and soul" of America. Afterward, Kerry spokesman David Wade said: "Performers have a right to speak their mind. John Kerry and John Edwards speak their minds and Americans know what they believe."
Meanwhile, the Bush campaign released an ad attacking Kerry for voting against what supporters call the "Laci Peterson Law," which makes it a separate offense to kill or injure a fetus while committing a violent federal crime against a pregnant woman. Kerry, who has rarely flown back to Washington to vote during this campaign, did so to oppose the measure. The ad says: "Kerry found time to vote against the Laci Peterson law that protects pregnant women from violence. Kerry has his priorities. Are they yours?"
Although Iraq and the economy are dominating the presidential debate, Kerry and Bush are increasingly trying to frame the election as a choice between different values. Bush, a born-again Christian, frequently speaks in religious terms and talks of how voters, especially those outside the liberal bastions of big cities and the two coasts, share his deep faith, values and sense of patriotism. The new ad reflects the campaign's belief that on sensitive social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, most Americans share Bush's views.
Kerry and Edwards "are more distanced from the values and priorities of mainstream America than any ticket in the history of the Democratic Party," said Nicolle Devenish, Bush's campaign spokeswoman. Kerry, who only recently engaged in this fight aggressively, touted his values at Thursday's event. "Family, faith, responsibility, service and opportunity," he declared to the crowd.
Starting with his run-up to the vice presidential pick, and intensifying since tapping Edwards, Kerry has made this a central theme, much as Bill Clinton did in the 1990s and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) did during the Democratic primaries. "We have a better sense of right and wrong," the senator from Massachusetts said at a rally Wednesday night in Florida.
Kerry -- a Roman Catholic, rarely talks about his religious faith unless he is speaking at an African American church -- is trying to push the debate toward how faith translates into social action and values. Tad Devine, a Kerry adviser, said Kerry and Edwards, in particular, will make faith a bigger part of their values argument in the weeks ahead.
"They are two men of faith, which is a big and important part of their life, and that will be discussed," Devine said. Kerry is considering delivering speeches outside of churches to explain more clearly how his faith helps guides his values, aides said. A recent Time magazine poll found that most voters did not think Kerry was a man of strong religious faith.
On "Larry King Live" Thursday night, Kerry said faith "guides you. It's your rock. It's the bedrock of your sense of place, of where it all fits."
Kerry has sought to reassure voters that he is not too liberal on key cultural issues. He has allowed reporters and photographers to observe him shooting a gun and recently told an Iowa newspaper he believes life begins at conception, which puts him, at a personal level, on the same page as abortion opponents. Kerry, however, opposes government restriction on abortion.
Polls show that one of the best indicators of how Americans vote is whether they attend church weekly. Those who do overwhelmingly vote Republican; those who do not back Democrats. If Democrats make even slim inroads into this demographic, it could alter the election, analysts say. This is particularly true in the South, a region Republicans have dominated in recent elections, but Democrats are more optimistic about this one with Edwards on the ticket.
Kerry's focus on values, aides said, will be a blend of the spiritual and the secular, pointing to his unwavering message of service, especially in the military, truth-telling and tending to those struggling to make ends meet. During his first two days as Kerry's running mate, Edwards has spent much of his time highlighting his humble beginnings as a poor kid in a small town and touting Kerry's values. "We share a vision and a set of values, the same values that I grew up with in that little town out in the country of North Carolina -- faith, family and responsibility, opportunity for everybody, not just a few who are at the top," Edwards said.
"The thought Bush and/or Cheney will have an advantage in respect to values is something we do not concede," Devine said.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll suggests Devine may be right. When asked whether the statement "he shares your values" applies more to Bush or Kerry, 46 percent said the president and 48 percent said Kerry.