John F. Kerry hammered President Bush on Friday for a sluggish economy and failing to protect consumers from the "debt trap" set by predatory lenders, as the Democratic nominee prepared to retreat to Nantucket late Saturday and cede center stage to the Republican convention for much of the next week.
At a town hall meeting here before a partisan crowd, Kerry continued to pound Bush for failing to improve the lives of most Americans. He seized on a new Commerce Department report showing the economy grew at a modest 2.8 percent in the last quarter, faulting Bush's policies for the slower-than-expected pace.
"John Edwards and I believe we should stop downsizing the dreams and possibilities of Americans and start doing a better job of putting people back to work," Kerry said in state he is a virtual lock to win.
Kerry outlined a plan to crack down on predatory lenders and credit card companies that slap cardholders with higher rates for missing even one payment. If a person is "late on one payment, they can change your interest up to 29 percent, and they do," he said. "So all of a sudden, people get caught in a trap -- the debt trap."
After speaking, Kerry headlined a party fundraiser in San Francisco, where he helped raise $3 million.
Edwards, who completed a week-long, nine-state trip through battleground states with a stop in St. Charles, Mo., challenged the administration to say more about the census figures that showed 1.4 million more people were without health insurance last year and 1.3 million more had fallen below the poverty level.
"This is what [Bush] had to say about these startling and troubling numbers," Edwards said, and he paused to let silence sink in. The crowd laughed, then cheered. "George Bush and Dick Cheney like to say they should be returned to office to continue the good they're doing for the country. Well, I don't know how much more of this good the country can take."
With Americans piling up record levels of debt, and the new census data showing incomes of many families flat-lining or falling, Kerry is confident voters will eventually see the wisdom of his economic policies through the fog of the debate over his war service and his antiwar activities afterward, aides say. Recent polls show a majority of voters express concern about Bush's economic policies and the direction the president is leading the country.
Yet Kerry will head to Nantucket with many voters expressing concern, not about his economic ideas, but his ability to provide strong and steady leadership as commander in chief. A new Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found 49 percent of voters give Bush high marks as commander in chief, while 35 percent rated Kerry highly. As evidence that attacks from anti-Kerry veterans may be sticking, a USA Today-CNN-Gallup poll showed a sharp drop in the number of voters who are more likely to vote for Kerry because of his war service -- the central theme of the Democratic convention one month ago.
Many Democrats worry that recent attacks on Kerry's character and consistency have boosted Bush's chances. The attacks -- first from a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and later from former GOP presidential candidate Robert J. Dole and other Republicans -- greatly complicated Kerry's strategy of capitalizing on troubling economic figures released in August, including state-by-state unemployment rates and weaker-than-expected growth numbers for the last quarter, which Kerry highlighted on Friday.
There is evidence, however, that Kerry's strategy of pinning blame for the anti-Kerry Vietnam attacks on the Bush campaign may be working and helping to put the issue behind him. The University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Study found that a plurality of voters believe Bush was behind the negative campaign.
Kerry is also trying to get back on the offensive on Iraq. Rand Beers, a top Kerry national security adviser, Friday pounced on Bush's admission in a recent interview that he miscalculated conditions in postwar Iraq. "The president has finally abandoned his stubborn refusal to admit his failure to plan," Beers said in a statement. "Now he must both plan and act."
Over the next six days, Kerry is planning to vacation with family and friends and plot strategy for the final 60 days of the race -- with one potentially significant exception. He will fly to Nashville to address a group of voters who have unexpectedly come to dominate the election this month: veterans. While aides say Kerry has not decided whether to address criticism of his Vietnam service and antiwar protests during his speech to the American Legion on Wednesday, he will make a broad appeal to veterans, who polls show breaking Bush's way of late. The president will address the group the previous day.
Staff writer David Nakamura, traveling with Edwards, contributed to this report.