San Diego Union Tribune

July 27, 2004

Kerry in Florida flays broad range of Bush policies


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. As Democrats opened their national convention, Sen. John Kerry sketched out a broad indictment of the Bush administration's policies at home and its conduct of the war on terrorism overseas.

Kerry, who is to claim the convention's presidential nomination on Thursday, accused the administration of tailoring health care policies to benefit large pharmaceutical companies while shredding individual medical insurance protections.

His critique also ranged across environmental, budget, worker safety and trade policies as he sought to broaden his general election appeal beyond a Democratic base that appears energized to give him its support.

"I want to talk to Republicans and independents: . . . Stop and think about what's happening in America," he said. " . . . If you are a conservative, there is nothing conservative about piling debt on the shoulders of our children and driving the deficits up as high as the eye can see."

Kerry appeared at a town-hall style meeting with a supportive audience at the Kennedy Space Center's visitor center.

His more combative tone has re-emerged only in recent days.

Sharply critical of Bush during the primary campaign, Kerry lately has focused on the general principles that he says would underlie his presidency, while seeking to avoid what might be portrayed as negative attacks on the Republican opposition.

But with his acceptance speech on Thursday still taking shape, Kerry appears to seeking a rhetorical balance between affirming his own leadership values and building a case to end Bush's presidency after one term.

Republicans said it again shows Kerry saying one thing and doing another.

Steve Schmidt, spokesman for the Bush re-election committee, said yesterday that Kerry had gone back on his word about having a positive tone during the convention.

"He has at every turn shifted his position if he perceived political benefit," Schmidt said in a statement. "Now it appears that he has even abandoned his pledge to be positive."

Kerry devoted significant attention in this swing state to health care costs, an issue of enormous importance to significant numbers of retirees living here, a state which Bush won by the narrowest of margins and thus the election four years ago after protracted recounts and legal battles.

Focusing on the recently enacted prescription drug law, Kerry, who opposed the measure, took Republicans to task for enacting provisions preventing the Medicare program from negotiating lower drug prices through bulk purchasing.

"They are taking care of the drug companies," Kerry thundered. "I'm going to take care of the American taxpayer . . . (I'm) going to make sure we have a tax system that's fair. We're going to roll back George Bush's unfair, unaffordable tax cut for the wealthiest Americans so we can invest in health care for all Americans."

He pledged that his top legislative priority as president would be to submit a bill that would provide universal health care coverage for children, increased access to insurance for the middle class, and reduce the costs facing small businesses providing coverage for their employees.

According to aides, Kerry came here to identify his candidacy with space exploration.

He drew an analogy between the enormous technical and scientific challenges confronted by the nation's space engineers and the need to bolster the nation's education system. But he quickly pivoted to a discussion of what he described as an unfinished agenda of earthly issues.

Asked by one questioner about the ill will toward Americans generated by the recent U.S. actions overseas, Kerry said, "Never in 35 years have I seen the United States as much the target, as much sort of derided disrespected as we are today."

He added that working with other countries "is not a sign of weakness. It's a sign of strength . . . You need leadership that works to build cooperation with other countries."

Kerry is expected to return to foreign policy and national security issues today when he appears at a naval base in Norfolk, Va. His final stop will be in Philadelphia before heading to the convention in Boston.

After toning down his earlier rhetoric about economic fairness in America, Kerry yesterday seemed to revert to a more sharply focused populist tone.

A retired member of the Communications Workers of America asked Kerry about the danger that retirees might lose existing employer-provided benefits under the new drug bill. "There is nothing to stop them from dropping you," Kerry said. " . . . That is not fair."