John F. Kerry, in what aides called an appeal to undecided religious voters, said Sunday he is a Democrat of deep Christian faith who would unite a pluralistic society and rebuff attempts by his Roman Catholic church to outlaw abortion and stem cell research.
"I love my church. I respect the bishops, but I respectfully disagree" with those who want to "write every doctrine into law," Kerry, a Catholic who supports abortion rights, told supporters here. "That is not possible or right in a pluralistic society. But my faith does give me values to live by and apply to the decisions I make."
While Kerry was targeting undecided voters with three stops in Florida, President Bush flew to New Mexico, a state Al Gore won in 2000, for a late-day rally in Alamogordo, where he said that "voters have a clear choice between two very different candidates with dramatically different approaches and records -- you know where I stand."
"It's good to be in country where the cowboy hats outnumber the ties," Bush told a crowd of 8,000. "I'm a compassionate conservative, and proudly so. At a time when our country has much to accomplish and much more to do, I offer a record of reform and a record of results."
Continuing to fight an idea Kerry has been seeding, Bush said, "There will not be a draft."
As is his custom when bad news breaks, Bush ignored the massacre of 49 Iraqi National Guard recruits by insurgents and instead emphasized progress. "Freedom is on the march," he said.
But his comments about terrorism in a Fox News interview, released earlier in the day, overshadowed his speech. "Whether or not we can be fully safe is up -- you know, up in the air," Bush said in the interview to be aired Monday on Fox's "Hannity and Colmes." "I would hope we could make it a lot more safe by staying on the offensive." He also suggested terrorists might strike again before the election, but said, "We have no actionable intelligence."
At a campaign stop later in Boca Raton, Kerry pounced on Bush's remarks, saying, "You make me president, and we will win the war on terror, and it won't be up in the air whether we make America safe."
The candidates will spend the final eight days before the election in many of the same battleground states. But they will work from markedly different playbooks for winning this tight race. Bush plans to close out the election much as he started it: promoting himself as the war president who can best protect America. His campaign's ads focus on Bush's stewardship of the war on terrorism and what it calls Kerry's shortcomings on national security.
Bush is to campaign Monday with former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. The Bush campaign said its final ad will be a 60-second spot highlighting his leadership qualities. It "encapsulates why the American people trust this president in the times we live in," said White House communications director Dan Bartlett. Bush, who spoke this weekend at a Florida rally for 55,000, also plans radio interviews with conservative talk-show hosts to stoke GOP voters, aides say.
Kerry's message will be more diffuse, stretching from stem cell research to homeland security and the Iraq war. Aides said his speeches will become increasingly positive in tone and optimistic. Bartlett scoffed at Kerry's contention that he is going positive at the end when his speeches were full of attacks, saying it's "like his claim that he's only had one position on Iraq."
Some Democratic officials privately say Kerry is making a tactical mistake by not focusing more on Iraq and terrorism to counter Bush. But Kerry aides say they have specific audiences such as socially conservative African Americans, gun-owning independents and undecided Jewish voters to lock up.
A general consensus exists among strategists from both parties that a majority of voters appear willing to oust Bush. At the same time, though, many voters tell pollsters that although they do not approve of the president's performance in office, they are not sold on replacing him with Kerry during such tumultuous times. "The argument we have made about change -- the substantive case for change -- is now breaking through," said Mike McCurry, a Kerry strategist. "The question many of those who are undecided is, 'Can I put my faith in John Kerry?' "
A half-dozen national polls released over the weekend showed a statistical tie or very slight lead for Bush. State polls in critical states such as Ohio are more troublesome for the incumbent, strategists from both parties say.
Bush was endorsed Sunday by three major Ohio newspapers he had courted, the Cincinnati Enquirer, Columbus Dispatch and Cincinnati Post, but his staff is looking at ways for him to win without carrying Ohio, where polls once showed him ahead but now have him even at best.
In an interview at his ranch with Charles Gibson of ABC's "Good Morning America," scheduled to air Monday, the president emphasized states he lost in 2000 where he has shown recent strength. "I wouldn't discount Michigan," Bush told Gibson. "I wouldn't discount the influence of Wisconsin and Iowa and Minnesota and New Mexico, and I think this race is a non-predictable race. I think people like to boil it down to one or two states. But I think you're going to find that there's a lot of interesting states that some have not considered to be in play, in play."
Asked whether he thinks in private moments about the possibility of losing, Bush said: "I'm not there yet."
Kerry is leading or tied in three states with the most electoral votes at stake: Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Yet he was forced to adjust his schedule to campaign in Michigan on Monday, where several polls show a closer-than-expected race, and Kerry aides say Bush is gaining ground in Ohio. Two recent polls taken in Hawaii, a Democratic stronghold where Bush received 37 percent in 2000, shows Bush running even with Kerry; Democrats say Arkansas, once considered a virtual lock for Bush, is tightening and might entice a last-minute appearance by former president Bill Clinton, who will campaign with Kerry in Pennsylvania on Monday and will then go to Florida.
Although the Kerry camp seems optimistic, some aides are still concerned about the Democratic nominee's ability to close the deal with undecided voters.
Kerry's talk Sunday was perhaps the most overtly religious speech of the campaign by either candidate. He spoke of a lifelong Catholic faith that sustained him through war and crises and a belief in a "common destiny" under God that carries with it a moral and social obligation for government to help the least of America's people.
"The Bible tells us that in others we encounter the face of the God," he said. Kerry said voters of faith should come together to fight AIDS, poverty, the growing number of uninsured citizens and low wages. "We have a moral obligation to one another, to the forgotten, and to those who live in the shadows." Kerry ended with a call to voters to pray for both candidates -- which was interrupted by a partisan response of "no more Bush."
Allen is traveling with Bush.