John F. Kerry rolled out a new campaign speech packed with populist rhetoric and sharp indictments of the Bush administration Thursday, while President Bush sounded the theme he will take to voters in the next 21/2 weeks: that Kerry is a big-government Massachusetts liberal.
At the AARP convention here, the Democrat ridiculed the president for saying in Wednesday's debate that healthy people should forgo flu vaccinations to save supplies for the sick and the elderly: "Sounds just like his health care plan: Hope and pray you do not get sick."
An overriding theme of Kerry's speech -- and his message for the final days of the campaign -- was that Bush is disconnected not only from the problems facing Americans but also from reality altogether. "He has spent this entire campaign trying to make us believe the unbelievable," Kerry said. Moments later, he added: "The president just does not seem to get it. He can spin until he's dizzy, but, at the end of the day, who does he think the American people are going to believe: George Bush or their own eyes?"
Speaking at a Las Vegas rally a few hours after Kerry appeared before the retiree organization, Bush told supporters: "Our very different records are a window into what we believe and what we'll do in the next four years. The senator believes in bigger government. I believe in more freedom and choices for our citizens."
Bush made a rare appearance in the press cabin of Air Force One en route to Las Vegas on Thursday morning to say he remains confident about his chances, despite some instant polls that indicated Kerry had won the third debate and national polls that show the race virtually even.
"The pundits and the spinners will all have their opinion, but there's only one opinion that matters, and that's the opinion of the American people on November the 2nd," he said. "And I feel great about where we are."
Bush advisers said little about this unusual visit with reporters, the first time Bush has ventured to the back of the plane since the early days of his presidency. Bush, accompanied by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), appeared eager to signal that the debates were behind him and that he prefers the verdict of the voters on Election Day.
The latest Washington Post tracking poll indicated a dead heat in the presidential race, with Bush and Kerry each getting the support of 48 percent of likely voters.
The Bush and Kerry schedules reflected both campaign's similar appraisals of where the battles are most intense. After two stops in Nevada, Bush flew to Oregon, and he will be in Iowa and Wisconsin on Friday. Kerry concluded his day Thursday in Des Moines and will go to Wisconsin on Friday as well.
In Wednesday's third and final debate, Kerry aides said their research showed that Kerry made significant gains on character issues, such as honesty and leadership, two areas in which Bush has often enjoyed a commanding edge.
Kerry also emerged from the debates with a more positive image on the issues of war and presidential leadership, but Bush advisers said the president still retains a lead on those issues.
Mike Donilon, a Kerry adviser, said Kerry's gains on the "character dimension" have helped solidify support among independent and undecided voters and helped "essentially undo" perceptions that the Democratic nominee is a flip-flopper who cannot be trusted in a time of war.
Bush advisers did not quibble with evidence that Kerry has gained the most from the three debates but said they were not surprised that the president's pre-debate lead has evaporated, given Kerry's debating skills, the morale boost Kerry's performance had has provided the Democrats, and the bad news -- a weak jobs report and a new report about the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- for the president last week.
They argued that the third debate, in particular, has provided openings for Bush to attack Kerry on health care, taxes and immigration. They said Bush will try to exploit them in the final stretch of the campaign.
Bush advisers said that Kerry's comments in the last debate demonstrated a liberal philosophy that favors big government, and that some of those ideas are politically unpopular, such as amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Capitalizing on those openings was exactly what Bush set out to do Thursday, hammering his rival on health care, taxes, Social Security and the war on terrorism. Asserting that "the choice in this election is clear," Bush told supporters at a morning rally here: "All three debates clarified the differences in our records. . . . I'm proud of my record. My opponent seemed to want to avoid talking about his."
The Kerry campaign plans to attack Bush where it believes he is most vulnerable, calling him disconnected from reality, whether in Iraq or on issues affecting middle-class families. In a new ad airing in Ohio, Kerry lambastes Treasury Secretary John W. Snow for recently claiming that job losses are a "myth."
"When is George Bush going to face reality?" the announcer asks.
Kerry told thousands of seniors at the AARP convention here that Bush's new Medicare law is a failure.
"The truth is, after doing nothing to lower the cost of prescription drugs for you, the president is now telling us that he has solved the problem," Kerry said. "Right, and those weapons of mass destruction will be found any day."
Kerry also tweaked Bush for not showing up at the AARP convention, but first lady Laura Bush was there in the president's place. She said her husband has "achieved historic results for America's seniors."
Harsh talk dominated the rallies of Bush's and Kerry's running mates. Campaigning in Florida, Vice President Cheney, still steamed by Kerry's comments about his gay daughter, questioned Kerry's character. He said the Democrat is trying to hide a "soft on defense" record with "a little tough talk."
Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), in Iowa, focused on health care, accusing Bush of having no plan to expand coverage or lower costs. "Here's the truth," he said. "The people of Iowa and the people of America can't take four more years of the same."
Both campaigns say there are about a dozen states where they will campaign actively in the final 18 days.
The two sides disagree on the state of play in Ohio, a Bush 2000 state, but the state appears to be a dead heat.
Both campaigns see Florida as one of the most competitive states in the country, with the Bush team saying the popularity of Gov. Jeb Bush (R), Bush's brother, is a big asset but worrying that hurricane damage in Republican areas could affect turnout.
Among smaller states that Bush won in 2000, his advisers worry most about New Hampshire but believe Colorado and Nevada will eventually end up in the GOP column.
Kerry has to defend three states in the upper Midwest that Al Gore won in 2000 -- with Iowa and Wisconsin at the top of the Bush campaign's list of targets. Minnesota remains on that list, but the Kerry camp is increasingly confident of winning there. The same holds for Michigan, but Bush advisers say an initiative on same-sex marriage there could skew turnout in their direction.
Bush's stop in Oregon on Thursday underscored his campaign's hope to keep that state competitive, but it has been a struggle. New Mexico, a state Gore won narrowly, is a tight race, according to both campaigns.
Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman scoffed at reports that his side has written off Pennsylvania. Another adviser said the campaign will make several stops there next week and plans to raise its advertising buy in the state. But Democrats see the state tilting their way.
Bush will make at least a nominal bid in one strongly Democratic state, with White House press secretary Scott McClellan announcing Thursday that the president will visit New Jersey on Monday. Bush lost New Jersey by 16 percentage points four years ago, but polls have shown Kerry with a single-digit lead. Democrats believe Bush's trip is a feint on the part of his campaign.
In a sign of how important every electoral vote might be, the Bush team is still focused on the northern congressional district in Maine, which awards some of its electoral votes by district, even though the state is tilting toward Kerry.
Staff writers Ceci Connolly in Las Vegas; Chris L. Jenkins, traveling with Edwards; and Michael Laris, traveling with Cheney, contributed to this report.