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Right Now, Bush Scares Voters More Than Kerry

The presidential race seems to have come down to this: which candidate can scare the public most about his opponent and reassure people about himself. [IMGCAP(1)]

Judging by their tactics in the final presidential debate, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) are each trying to tell voters, “You’re much safer with me,” both in the war on terrorism and in facing the nation’s domestic challenges.

And, judging by opinion polls, the public is as split down the middle as it’s ever been — which represents a gain for Kerry from where he stood before the debates began.

Bush campaign officials think they are about 2 points up on Kerry nationally, but they acknowledge that five states Bush carried in 2000 are in danger — in order of worry, New Hampshire, Florida, Colorado, Ohio and Nevada.

Kerry campaign strategist Tad Devine claims that Kerry, by winning the debates and closing the polling gap, has seized the momentum and will be able to score “saves” in threatened blue states like New Mexico, Iowa and Wisconsin.

Contrary to analyses that suggested that Kerry’s strategy in the final debate was to court women while Bush’s was to solidify his conservative base, I thought both candidates sought to reassure voters about themselves and paint a vote for the opponent as dangerous.

While it’s Bush’s line that Kerry is on “the far left bank” rather than in “the mainstream,” Kerry is also portraying Bush as an extreme, radical ideologue, in contrast to his own pledge to solve problems in a traditional, moderate way.

And Bush claimed to be a “compassionate conservative” reformer whose policies are succeeding. “Freedom is on the march,” he said, the economy is on the way back, and he will solve the problems of the 21st century.

I think the danger for Bush is that his policies — such as preventive war, Social Security reform and health savings accounts — are novel and risky.

Kerry, as The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank correctly pointed out on Friday, did not appear in the debates to fulfill the caricature sketched by Bush backers of a “spineless, vacillating opportunist” or a “beaded leftist.”

Right out of the box on Wednesday night, Kerry pledged that he will conduct foreign policy in the tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and John Kennedy, whereas Bush “rushed to war, pushed allies away” and made America “not as safe as we ought to be.”

Bush has powerful weapons to use against Kerry on foreign policy, especially Kerry’s vote against the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But in last week’s debate Bush didn’t use them to deliver a knockout punch.

Bush did say that “in 1990, there was a vast coalition put together to run Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. The international community … said this was the right thing to do. But when it came to the authorization of the use of force on the Senate floor, my opponent voted against the use of force.”

This reads well on paper, but Bush didn’t set it up properly in the debate, and it came off almost as an aside.

Still to come is an ad that features Kerry on CBS’ “Face the Nation” last September, declaring it would be “irresponsible” and “reckless” for any U.S. Senator to vote against $87 billion for Iraq, “abandoning our troops” and “cutting and running” — and then points out that, a month later, Kerry did vote “No.”

On domestic policy, to counter Bush’s claims that he’s a tax-and-spend liberal, Kerry sought to show that he was a moderate champion of the middle class who “voted for tax cuts over 600 times, broke with my party in order to balance the budget” and now wants to cut corporate taxes to create jobs.

Kerry claims not only that Bush’s economic policies have made him the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net loss of jobs, but also that Bush opposed an increase in the minimum wage while cutting taxes for the rich and endangering Social Security.

Bush plans to allow younger workers to divert part of their Social Security taxes into private savings accounts. This is a good idea in itself, but Kerry pointed out that the Congressional Budget Office estimates that this would take away $2 trillion needed to pay benefits for current retirees.

“My fellow Americans,” said Kerry, “that’s an invitation to disaster. … There would be a $2 trillion hole in Social Security because today’s workers pay into the system for today’s retirees. … There would have to be a cut in benefits of 25 percent to 40 percent.”

Similarly, on health care, Bush wants reforms that make consumers conscious of costs. This, too, is a good idea. But Kerry is offering familiar solutions — expansion of Medicaid and tax credits to allow citizens to buy into the federal employee health system.

Bush is trying to scare voters by calling the Kerry plan “government-run health” that will cost $5 trillion. “I believe the role of government is to stand side by side with our citizens to help them realize their dreams, not tell citizens how to live their lives,” Bush said.

In turn, Kerry tried to scare voters by saying that Bush’s judicial appointees might overturn Roe v. Wade — something Bush didn’t deny. Bush also said he’d save marriage from “activist judges” by amending the Constitution to prevent gays from marrying. Kerry says that Bush will reinstitute the draft.

So, who’s scarier? I’d say Bush, because traditionalist policies aren’t up to the challenges of the 21st century. But, in the voting booth, voters may be scared to face those challenges.

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