John F. Kerry charged Friday that there is a "great potential" President Bush will reinstate the military draft if reelected, as the two candidates battled furiously for an edge with voters in Iowa and Wisconsin who are deeply divided over the Iraq war, the economy and their presidential choice.
In comments displayed on the front page of Friday's Des Moines Register, the largest and most influential newspaper in Iowa, Kerry offered scant evidence to support the allegation of an impending draft under Bush. "With George Bush, the plan for Iraq is more of the same and the great potential of a draft," Kerry told the newspaper. Michael McCurry, a senior adviser, said Kerry based the charge on concerns relayed by voters, members of Congress and military officials.
The president has said several times that he will not bring back the draft, and all but two members of the House, both Democrats, recently voted against the idea.
Speaking a few hours after Kerry flew out of Iowa in the morning, Bush told voters in Cedar Rapids that "we're modernizing and transforming our United States military so we can keep the all-volunteer army an all-volunteer army."
Yet many college-age voters -- a group Kerry is aggressively targeting for support -- fear the draft will be reinstated during a second Bush term, polls show. Republicans charge that the Democratic candidate's strategy is to stoke those fears. Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman, said Kerry's comment shows he "will do or say anything to get elected."
After leaving Iowa, the two candidates crossed paths -- and verbal swords -- in hotly contested Wisconsin. Kerry capped his day with a rally in Appleton, in the heart of the Fox River Valley, shortly after Bush spoke to supporters 30 miles to the south in Oshkosh, a blue-collar city he lost by a mere 100 votes in 2000.
During a three-stop bus tour starting in Milwaukee, Kerry railed against Bush's economic policies. He said the president is "out of touch" with the millions of Americans struggling to find a job or make ends meet with costs such as health coverage soaring.
Bush sought to cast himself as an innovative reformer pitted against a status quo doctrinaire liberal. He hewed closely to a new stump speech that aides said is designed to draw sharp distinctions with Kerry, particularly on domestic issues.
Both campaigns consider Wisconsin, Iowa and neighboring Minnesota crucial. Modest economic improvements over the past year, unemployment rates lower than the national average and a large number of socially conservative rural voters have enhanced the president's chances of winning these states, all of which Democrat Al Gore won in 2000, according to strategists in both parties and public polling.
Kerry officials say Minnesota is trending their way but concede that Bush is running even or ahead in Iowa and Wisconsin.
The two campaigns have markedly different visions of how to win in this region. Kerry focuses mostly on economic issues in stops in big cities (Des Moines on Thursday, Milwaukee on Friday) and opposition to the war. Bush stresses taxes, social issues and security as he zeros in on rural communities and small towns.
At a technical college in Milwaukee, Kerry said: "Remarkably, the president said he was proud of his record. Proud of millions of Americans unemployed, proud of tens of millions without health insurance, proud of millions of families [facing rising] costs and falling incomes? And this on the day the federal government announced the largest deficit in American history. If that's what he is proud of, I would hate to see what he's ashamed of."
The government announced a record deficit in 2004 of $413 billion, higher than previous estimates. The government also announced it is hitting the $7.4 trillion debt ceiling, another record high.
Kerry pounded away at the president's economic record, frequently returning to the charge that Bush picks the wealthy over the working man every time. "The president has proven time beyond a doubt he's out of touch with American families, out of ideas and unwilling to change course," Kerry said.
In Cedar Rapids, Bush returned to the reformer message that worked well for him in 2000.
"The next president must recognize the need for reform and must be able to achieve them," he said. "On issue after issue, from jobs to health care to the need to strengthen Social Security, Senator Kerry's policies fail to recognize the changing realities of today's world and the need for fundamental reforms."
Bush tried to drive home the argument that Kerry favors government intrusion over individual freedom. "I don't believe in big government, and I don't believe in indifferent government," he said. "I'm a compassionate conservative."
On the economy, Bush challenged Kerry over the link between education and jobs. "When I talked about the vital link between education and jobs, the senator didn't seem to get it," he said. "He said I switched away from jobs and talking about education. No, good jobs start with good education."
Advisers said the president plans two major speeches next week to help frame the arguments for the final days of the campaign and to point out what campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish called the "bright lines and big differences" with Kerry. On Monday he is to talk about the war on terrorism, one area where he still enjoys a clear advantage over Kerry. On Thursday, he plans to talk about health care.
The vice presidential candidates, meanwhile, battled over the economy in two states consumed with manufacturing slumps.
Vice President Cheney visited a series of largely white Michigan neighborhoods not far from the hardscrabble, predominantly black city of Benton Harbor in a campaign swing that illustrated the divided nature of this key electoral prize.
Cydni Sanders, from Benton Harbor, queried Cheney about the 40 percent of her city's residents living under the poverty line, and the findings of a recent Rockefeller Foundation report on the country's more than 9 million working-poor families.
Cheney responded that the "best solution" to poverty "is a job." He cited the benefits of the administration's tax cuts, and plans to help small businesses pay for health care and to reduce the amount they spend on liability insurance.
Campaigning in Ohio, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) mocked Treasury Secretary John W. Snow for saying job losses are a "myth."
"What planet are these guys living on?" Edwards told the standing-room-only crowd of about 1,100 in Mentor. "The rest of us have to live here on planet Earth."
Balz is traveling with Bush. Staff writers Michael Laris, traveling with Cheney, and Chris L. Jenkins, traveling with Edwards, contributed to this report.