In dueling appeals to working women, President Bush cast himself Friday as a champion of struggling families and Sen. John F. Kerry called his opponent oblivious to all the middle-class dreams that have died on his watch.
Bush, speaking shortly after the release of a campaign ad that used prowling wolves to represent the danger lurking from terrorism, tried to broaden his message for the few remaining undecided voters by framing the election as a stark choice about "your family security, your budget, your quality of life, your retirement, and the bedrock values that are so critical to our families and our future."
"Our economy is growing at rates as fast as any in nearly 20 years," Bush said as he began his three-state day in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "My opponent has a very different plan for your budget. He intends to take a bigger chunk out of it."
Kerry, campaigning in Wisconsin, asked, "How dare this administration say this is the best economy of our lifetime?" The Massachusetts senator asserted that "for far too many women, the American dream seems a million miles away."
"The simple fact is, this president is just out of touch and out of ideas," Kerry told an audience of mainly women. "He can spin until he's dizzy, but at the end of the day, who does he think American women are going to believe -- him or their own eyes?"
The overt appeal to women came amid signs of a close and tightening race in which the candidates are looking for any possible advantage in the final 11 days. Bush advisers said the overture to women and other independents reflects concern in the president's campaign that he has not gotten any of the breaks he had hoped for in the closing days, notably promising news from Iraq.
Kerry's campaign is anxious about solidifying his inconsistent support among women, who historically favor Democrats. Surveys have shown that women trust Kerry more with pocketbook issues such as jobs and health, but that a majority of "security moms" see Bush as better able to protect them and their families.
Friday, both candidates tried to underscore their family-friendly messages visually. Bush appeared onstage at a historic vaudeville theater with first lady Laura Bush and their twin daughters, billed by a campaign announcer as "America's first family." Kerry was flanked by Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, his sister Peggy and his daughter Vanessa as he promised to protect the country.
Both candidates presented themselves as protectors. "Just as I placed a passion on the line for my country [ in Vietnam] and hunted down and killed the enemy then," Kerry said, "I guarantee you that I will leave no stone unturned to protect this country."
Bush stressed his core claim that he will keep America safer than Kerry, which the Democrat's campaign called an effort to frighten voters. "All progress on every other issue depends on the safety of our citizens," Bush said. "The enemies who killed thousands of innocent people are still dangerous and determined to strike us again. The outcome of this election will set the direction of the war against terror, and in this war there is no place for confusion and no substitute for victory."
At the outset of a two-day swing through Florida, vice presidential candidate John Edwards accused the Bush administration of being incompetent for its decision to scale back CIA operations in Afghanistan in advance of the war with Iraq. Edwards cited a story Friday in The Washington Post that detailed how the Bush administration drew down CIA operations in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003 and steered resources toward Iraq.
"It was at a time when we had Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda on the run," Edwards, a North Carolina senator, said during a rally in Boynton Beach. "Why did George Bush make this choice? . . . This is not leadership. This is incompetence."
With no ceremony, Bush on Friday signed a bill for $143 billion in tax breaks for corporations over 10 years, and tried to head off any populist backlash against it by declaring in Canton that it is "going to help our manufacturers" and "will help keep jobs here."
Later in Canton, Bush focused on his plans to restructure medical liability laws, emphasizing the benefits for obstetricians. "To keep jobs growing in Ohio, we need to do something about the junk lawsuits that plague the job creators in the state of Ohio," he said.
Polls have shown Kerry emerging from the debates with a clear advantage over Bush on economic issues, and Ohio has lost more jobs during the past four years -- 232,000 -- than any swing state besides Michigan. In Canton, Bush's motorcade passed pink slips that Democrats had tacked to telephone polls.
Bush's visit followed an unusual drought of nearly three weeks in his travel to Ohio. During that time, polls showed him losing what once was a lead over Kerry, whose aides said Bush had concluded that the economy had put the state out of his reach. Karl Rove, Bush's senior adviser, asserted that his campaign's "numbers are good" in Ohio, although the state is not "put away." Aides were vague about why he had not visited the state since Oct. 2, saying only that he had to make up several visits to Florida because hurricanes had prevented his traveling there.
The preferences of women in the presidential race remain ambiguous. A Pew Research Center poll taken last weekend, as well as a Marist survey and an AP-Ipsos survey, showed Kerry had widened his lead over Bush among women by at least 10 points. But the Kerry campaign has him leading among women by six, and the Washington Post-ABC tracking poll shows Bush with small lead over Kerry among women. Al Gore led Bush among women in 2000 by about 11 points. Political analysts believe Kerry cannot win the election unless he wins the support of women because of Bush's strong lead among men.
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said the campaign views blue-collar women older than 50 as an opportunity for Kerry. In making his appeal to working women, Kerry promises to raise the minimum wage to $7 and also vows better jobs and guaranteed health care for children.
Still, in recent weeks, Kerry has made a direct and aggressive appeal to all women by addressing Iraq and terrorism in virtually every speech in tough language. He has dispatched the widows of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to the battleground states.
Kerry aides said Friday, however, that the nominee would leave it to Edwards to respond to news on Iraq. Officials said they want Kerry to appear positive and forward-looking in the final days before the election, to contrast with Bush's negative attacks. Aides cited the images aired on television Thursday showing Kerry hugging Dana Reeve, widow of actor Christopher Reeve.
Vice President Cheney, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, reprised his controversial assertion that Americans have "got to make the right decision."
"The bottom line is, I don't have any confidence in John Kerry to be the kind of tough, aggressive commander in chief that will aggressively pursue our adversaries overseas, and I think that's a major failing because I don't think we can win the war on terror unless we aggressively go after our enemies," Cheney said.
Cheney dismissed the Clinton administration's effort to launch "a few cruise missiles" at terrorist training camps in Afghanistan after U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa. "That was it," Cheney said. In answer to a question from a supporter about the hunt for bin Laden, Cheney said the government has "not let up for a minute" and will "eventually get him -- it's just a matter of time." "You notice there haven't been any bin Laden tapes running on the air where he's out broadcasting messages," Cheney said, "because we think he's probably in a deep hole someplace."
Romano is traveling with Kerry. Staff writers John Wagner, traveling with Edwards, and Michael Laris, traveling with Cheney, contributed to this report.