President Bush and Democrat John F. Kerry vied for advantage Thursday on the closely watched issue of health care, with the challenger demanding an end to Bush's restrictions on federal embryonic stem cell research and the president calling for new restrictions on medical malpractice awards.
As they delivered their dueling themes in adjacent battleground states -- Kerry in Ohio and Bush here in Pennsylvania -- the two gave decidedly different views of the American health care system and proposals for fixing it. Kerry emphasized the growing number of uninsured Americans during Bush's presidency, and Bush said Kerry would push the nation toward government-run health care.
"Senator Kerry's idea of reform always involves bigger and more intrusive government, and his health care proposal proves my point," he said to boos from an invited audience of about 2,000 supporters at a recreation center here in eastern Pennsylvania. Bush said Kerry's plan "would be the largest expansion of government health care in American history."
Kerry, appearing with Dana Reeve, the widow of paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, accused the president of thwarting scientific research and taking away hope of finding cures through stem cell research. "George Bush has literally . . . turned his back on the spirit of exploration and discovery," Kerry said in Columbus. "We now have a president who is so beholden to special interests that he refuses to make the kinds of investments that benefit our common interests."
With 12 days until the election, neither candidate volunteered new proposals. But their speeches on health-related issues continued a pattern this week in which the two have engaged in long-distance fights on similar issues: first terrorism, then domestic matters, Iraq and now health care. Although much of the campaign's sound and fury has been devoted to matters of national security, the Bush and Kerry policies on those issues are more similar than they are on health care, where the differences are vast.
Polls give Kerry an advantage on health issues, and Bush has not kept his 2000 campaign promise to reduce the number of uninsured Americans. The ranks of uninsured increased by 5 million people during his tenure.
Bush, who spoke here before addressing a crowd of 20,000 in Hershey, Pa., said his administration "made a good start" in improving health care. He contrasted his proposals -- health savings accounts, insurance pools for small businesses, malpractice limits and tax credits -- with Kerry's more ambitious, and costly, plan. "When it comes to health care, Senator Kerry's prescription is bigger government with higher costs," Bush said. "My reforms will lower costs and give more control and choices to the American people."
Bush gave particular emphasis to limits on medical malpractice awards. "The quality of life is deteriorating because of these lawsuits," he said, vowing that "in a new term, we'll pass real caps on noneconomic damages."
Bush said he had pledged to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health, and "I kept my word." Actually, former senator Connie Mack (R-Fla.) led the effort during the Clinton administration to double the NIH budget within five years. NIH spending is now $27.9 billion, and Bush proposes $28.6 billion for fiscal 2005.
The president said Kerry's health plan would add 22 million people to the "government health care rolls," and he cited the National Association of Wholesalers' description of the Kerry plan as an "overpriced albatross" that would impose many new regulations on small businesses. "The Kerry plan would move America down the road toward federal control of health care, which would lead to lower quality and health care rationing," he said.
Kerry proposes expanding coverage to about 27 million more Americans by broadening access to private plans and by expanding Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
In his speech, one of the last he will make before heading into coast-to-coast rallies, Kerry drew a connection between scientific research and jobs, telling his audience that federal expenditures on research are the "best jobs program America has ever had." But the president, he charged, "has been so obsessed with cutting taxes for the wealthy that our investments in creating those jobs are dying on the vine."
"You get the feeling that if George Bush had been president during other periods in American history, he would have sided with the candle lobby against electricity, the buggy-makers against cars, and typewriter companies against computers," Kerry said to laughter.
Dana Reeve received a warm welcome as she spoke, in her first appearance since her husband died 11 days ago. Christopher Reeve was paralyzed nine years ago in horseback riding accident, and spent his final years aggressively seeking a cure for spinal-cord injuries. His wife said she approached the campaign because she knew it was what her husband would have wanted, and explained that being an advocate for Kerry and stem cell research would help her in her grief. "He joined the majority of Americans in believing the promise of embryonic stem cell research," she said to much applause.
Kerry said that he would lift Bush's limits on federally funded stem cell research. "By blocking stem cell research, President Bush has sacrificed science to ideology," he said. Kerry also pledged to reduce dependence on foreign oil by investing in clean and alternative energy sources, to offer auto manufacturers incentives to develop fuel-efficient cars, and invest in research that would create industries and jobs.
Speaking for the Bush campaign, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a medical doctor, issued a statement saying Kerry "is not interested in the facts." Frist said Bush is the first president to fund embryonic stem cell research -- such research became possible in the past few years -- and has increased federal research and development funding by 44 percent.
Bush issued an executive order in 2001 restricting federally funded research to existing embryonic stem cell lines. Some researchers have said that there are fewer of these cell lines than was believed at the time and that they are not useful for therapeutic purposes because they have been contaminated.
Bush's afternoon rally in Hershey, at a football stadium flanked by roller coasters, drew one of his largest crowds to date despite gloomy, drizzly weather. Bush will return to Pennsylvania on Friday and will then visit Ohio -- his first visit there since Oct. 2 -- and Florida. Aides anticipate more such rallies next week as Bush visits New Mexico, Colorado, Iowa and Wisconsin.
In Wisconsin, Vice President Cheney continued his assertion that Kerry does not have the "judgment or conviction America needs in a president." Lynne V. Cheney used the stop to further the controversy over Teresa Heinz Kerry questioning whether first lady Laura Bush's had ever had a "real" job. "She is warm and gracious, she's a librarian, she's a teacher, and she knows that raising kids is a real job," Lynne Cheney said.
As the Cheneys greeted supporters following the Wisconsin speech, Andrew DeBaker, a gay activist and accountant who said he is a registered Republican, yelled out to ask why Lynne Cheney did not support allowing her daughter Mary, who is a lesbian, to wed. Angry supporters sought to drown out DeBaker by yelling "Four more years!" before he was removed from the event.
"Either he doesn't love his daughter . . . or he's spineless," DeBaker later said of the vice president. He said he feels "betrayed by my party." Cheney and Bush support a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, in Iowa, continued to criticize the Bush administration for dispatching national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and other Cabinet officials to battleground states. "Who's minding the store? I mean, really," Edwards said. "There's a solution to that problem, and that solution in America is called Election Day."
Romano is traveling with Kerry. Staff writers Michael Laris with Cheney, John Wagner with Edwards, and Ceci Connolly in Washington contributed to this report.