President Bush and Democrat John F. Kerry entered the final stage of the White House race Friday with the incumbent savoring a successful convention week and the challenger faulting Bush for presiding over a loss of jobs.
At the unofficial start of the fall campaign, the two sides squabbled over a Labor Department report, released in the morning, showing that 144,000 jobs were created in August while the overall unemployment rate ticked downward -- a performance that was better than July's level but slightly below the number of new jobs that economists had expected. Democrats pointed out that the economy would need to add 150,000 jobs monthly just to keep pace with population growth.
Speaking to about 100 neighbors on one of his "front porch" visits on an overcast morning in Newark, Ohio, Kerry said that even with the August gain the nation had still lost 1.6 million jobs since Bush took office -- 230,000 of which were in Ohio -- and that Bush would be the first president since the Depression to face reelection without a net gain in jobs.
"The president wants you to reelect him. For what?" Kerry said. "Losing jobs? Building the biggest deficit in American history? Getting us into a war that you spent $200 billion on when he told you it would cost you $1 billion?"
The White House said that the job loss is only 900,000 when government employment is considered and that the term could still end with job gains. As Bush traveled in Wisconsin, White House officials said the employment report was not bad enough to limit the boost in public support Bush was expecting from the New York convention. "This makes it harder for the Kerry campaign to talk down the economy," a senior administration official said.
Air Force One had a celebratory mood for the first time in a long time, as White House senior adviser Karl Rove and former counselor Karen Hughes hit the road along with campaign manager Ken Mehlman, who rarely travels with Bush. Mehlman would not speculate about the possibility of cementing any kind of lead, saying that he is not an astrologer and that the campaign still believes its mantra that the race will be very close. "We're focused on solutions for the next four years to make the world safer and America more hopeful," he said.
After his acceptance speech at Madison Square Garden, Bush flew Thursday night to northeastern Pennsylvania, a battleground area in a battleground state, for a family-friendly rally at a minor-league baseball park featuring an outfield moon bounce to entertain children.
Wearing an open-collar olive shirt, the president started his day by striding onstage to the sound of the country duo Brooks & Dunn performing "Only in America." He reached two-handed into the crowd as he edged toward the lectern and was in a chipper enough mood that he chuckled and waved when he spotted reporters in the press box behind him. At a lunchtime rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a warehouse was darkened when the president's motorcade pulled up and thousands of people waved flags, glow sticks and silhouette W's amid dancing spotlights and throbbing music.
The trip was part of an eight-day run bracketing Bush's day in New York that will take him three times each to Pennsylvania and Ohio, twice each to Iowa and West Virginia, and once to Michigan, New Hampshire, Tennessee and Wisconsin. The itinerary includes 10 rallies, three "Ask President Bush" forums, one bus tour and three events.
The Bush campaign tried to send a message of progress and optimism by launching the general-election race in swing areas that went to Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Bush lost Pennsylvania by five percentage points, and Lackawanna County, where he staged the ballpark rally, 60 percent to 36 percent. He lost Wisconsin -- the Gore state that he may have the best change of picking up -- by 5,708 votes. He lost Iowa by 4,144 votes.
But Kerry sought to benefit from the weak job-creation report; some of the worst job loss has been in industrial battleground states. In Ohio, Kerry cited the new government job figures as a striking example of Bush's "record of failure." "I don't think this is something to 'celebrate,' " Kerry said in reference to a remark by Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao. "I think it's something to get to work on. It's something to change."
Kerry said that other presidents have also "faced wars and recessions, but not one of them has failed to create a single job."
The Democratic nominee wasted no time launching the fall campaign with a robust response to the attacks on him at the Republican convention, starting at midnight and followed a few hours later Friday morning by a broadside at the Bush administration's economic policies and "broken promises." He is on a two-day bus tour through Ohio, a battleground state with 20 electoral votes that Bush carried in 2000.
At the rally in front of the town hall in Newark, Kerry reacted to a week-long barrage on his character and credentials at the GOP convention, called the Republicans "bitter and insulting" and challenged their veracity. "Every time they open their mouths they can't tell the truth," Kerry told thousands. "It's time for us to have a president of the United States who can look you in the eye and, when he does, you know you're being told the truth."
Kerry, pummeled by attacks during the convention on his national security record, also made some of his most forceful comments on the subject yet, defending his oft-ridiculed vote against $87 billion for the troops and rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the Republicans have painted as demonstrating a lack of support for the military.
"This president rushed to war without a plan to win the peace," Kerry said loudly. "And I believe that because he didn't have a plan to win the peace, it was irresponsible to give him a blank check that gave $20 billion that was going to go . . . to Halliburton and all these other companies, that we needed accountability for this president."
One early poll showed Bush getting a sizable "bounce" from the convention. A poll by Time magazine taken between Aug. 31 and Sept. 2 showed Bush leading Kerry among likely voters 52 percent to 41 percent -- the largest lead Bush has had in recent months. Two other independent polls also taken as the convention was in progress showed movement in Bush's direction, but with the race still statistically even.
The presidential running mates and the campaigns' surrogates marked the start of the fall campaign with coast-to-coast events. Vice President Cheney took a cross-country flight from New York to rally Republicans in rural northwest Oregon and Las Vegas, where he reprised his attacks on Kerry during his Wednesday night speech and pivoted to weave the jobs report into his defense of the president's stewardship of the economy.
"The Bush tax cuts are working," Cheney told a crowd of more than 2,000 supporters in Pendleton, Ore., population 15,000. "Every American who pays federal income taxes benefited from the Bush tax cuts, and so has our economy. We've created jobs for the last 12 consecutive months, a total of about 1.7 million new jobs over the last year," he said. Cheney's 30-minute speech capped his fourth trip to Oregon this year. The Bush-Cheney ticket lost the Pacific Northwest state by 4,000 votes four years ago.
Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards campaigned in Green Bay, Wis., where he said that the jobs created in the past month were insufficient to absorb new workers and those who have lost their jobs in the past four years.
He said 65,000 manufacturing jobs had been lost in Wisconsin. "The one thing you can count on, this administration, President Bush, Vice President Cheney, they're going to try every way they know to put lipstick on this pig. But you know when you put lipstick on a pig at the end of the day it's still a pig, isn't it?" Edwards said, drawing laughter and cheers from the crowd.
Kerry surrogates were also out in full force Friday, taking issue with many of the specific attacks leveled at the Democratic nominee during the GOP convention. In a morning conference call with reporters, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) vowed that "the rebuttal of what they've thrown at us has just begun."
Former senator John Glenn (D-Ohio) took the defense a step further by comparing the Republicans' misleading statements to those of Nazi Germany. "You've just got to separate out fact from fiction. . . . Too often, too often, in this country, if you hear something repeated, it's the old Hitler business -- if you hear something repeated, repeated, repeated, repeated, you start to believe it," he said.
Romano reported from Ohio. Staff writers Spencer Hsu with Cheney and Vanessa Williams with Edwards contributed to this report.