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Swing states in the cross hairs

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. — GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - President Bush tried yesterday to neutralize whatever advantage John Kerry picked up at the Democratic convention, arguing that the nominee and his allies offered "clever speeches and some big promises" - which Bush said Kerry would have to pay for by raising taxes.

"He hasn't told us how he plans to pay for it," Bush said of Kerry's agenda. "You and I can guess. It's an educated guess. After all, he's had a history of voting to raise taxes."

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"Raising taxes to fulfill all his big promises will be the wrong medicine for America's improving economy," he told a crowd crammed into a college gymnasium here.

Bursting back onto the campaign trail, Bush flew across the Midwest, visiting the battleground states of Missouri, Michigan and Ohio.

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In Grand Rapids, he also sounded another message, one that might appeal to swing voters: If after the Sept. 11 attacks, terrorist groups are being dismantled, and if after a recession, the economy is chugging along again, why change the roster at the top?

"When it comes to choosing a president, results matter," Bush said.

The president argued that he, unlike Kerry, has achieved much of an ambitious agenda. He cast himself as a tested leader on national security, the economy and other domestic issues. A Medicare prescription drug benefit and public school reforms, he pointed out, have come on his watch.

Emphasizing results, Bush contrasted himself with his rival. He and his surrogates jabbed at what they called Kerry's flimsy record and murky vision.

In response to the president's assertion that results matter, the Kerry campaign argued yesterday that the results of Bush's policies are record deficits, soaring health costs, lower-quality jobs, a strained military and a nation isolated from its allies.

"A brand new shiny speech won't cover up Bush's failure to help middle-class families," said Phil Singer, a Kerry spokesman.

The Kerry campaign pointed out that although Kerry has pledged to roll back some of the Bush tax cuts, he would do so only for people who make more than $200,000.

For all the lofty language in his Boston convention speech, Bush and allies say, Kerry failed to explain just how he would handle the situation in Iraq. And, they pointed out, Kerry scarcely mentioned his long Senate record.

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Bush argued that in nearly 20 years in the Senate, "my opponent has had thousands of votes, but very few signature achievements."

In a conference call organized by the Bush campaign, Republican Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania - another battleground state that Bush will visit this weekend - said that at the Democratic convention, "not one single speaker put forth what John Kerry's been up to the last 20 years."

After abiding by custom and staying mostly out of sight during his opponent's convention, Bush roared back onto the scene. He tried to infuse his supporters with optimism at a time when aides predict he will fall behind in the race, if only temporarily.

Perhaps to ensure maximum applause and exuberance for television cameras, Bush chose Republican strongholds for his return to the stump. The effect was to give him at least the image of a leader carrying forth an exciting new message - to try to rival the momentum Kerry is carrying out of Boston.

"The crowds are big, the enthusiasm is high, the signs are good," Bush said at a raucous outdoor rally in Springfield, Mo., just 11 hours after balloons floated to the FleetCenter floor at the end of Kerry's address.

From Missouri, Bush flew to western Michigan. After spending last night in Cleveland, he is scheduled today to take the third bus tour of his campaign, with stops throughout Ohio. He is to finish his day in Pittsburgh, just hours after Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, are to visit the city's outskirts.

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The Pittsburgh visit will mark Bush's 32nd visit to the Keystone State, which bears a trove of electoral votes that Al Gore narrowly won in 2000.

The fruits of Bush's decision to return quickly to the campaign trail were clear. In Grand Rapids, voters awoke to a post-convention interview on NBC's Today show with Kerry and Edwards. But that was instantly followed by extensive coverage of the presidential visit and images of staff putting up decorations to celebrate Bush's arrival.

Bush seemed determined to mix pride in his record with a sense of purpose and vision for the future, casting Kerry as an obstacle in the way of progress.

In the weeks ahead, Bush will enjoy a financial edge. Kerry, as his party's formal nominee, is now constrained in spending. He can no longer use the money his campaign raised and will have to rely on $75 million from the government, though the Democratic Party and outside advocacy groups will do much to keep Kerry more than afloat.

Bush, by contrast, can raise and spend money at will until his convention in New York, at which point he will face the same constraints.

The Bush campaign is scheduled to unroll ads that Bush taped on his ranch in Texas. Kerry is set to go dark, not spending on TV advertising this month to save money for the race's final stretch.

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On the other hand, the senator will likely enjoy at least a temporary rise in the polls from his convention that would put Bush in the position of trailer. Trying to lower expectations, Bush's campaign chairman, Marc Racicot, told CNN that he is bracing for the polls to swing against the president.

Should Kerry gain no bounce, or only a small one, the president's team is sure to claim that the Democratic convention was a failure.

In his campaign swing, Bush is hitting some of the states that could determine the election. In Michigan, which he lost to Gore by 4 percentage points, the president must face up to an economy that has not risen out of recession as quickly as in other states. The state has lost more than 200,000 jobs since Bush became president, mostly in manufacturing.

Ron Brown, a political scientist at Wayne State University in Detroit, said "whoever sends the clearest message on the economy will win this state."

"Bush has to convince people here that there will be a trickle-down effect for them in this economy, and that the tax cuts on the wealthy will benefit those in the middle class," he said.

Bush told his Michigan audience that he knows "the slowdown hit hard" in their area. "I understand that," he said.

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But he added that he had spoken with a small-business owner who assured the president that "business in this part of the country is starting to turn around." The president said more people here will soon begin to enjoy a recovery that was spurred, he said, by "two well-timed tax cuts" that he pushed for.

In speaking about Iraq, Bush invoked a line from the Sept. 11 commission's report, which said the government "failed to imagine" the threat that would explode Sept. 11. In fact, Bush said, one reason he chose to invade Iraq is that "we could not fail to imagine" the possibility that Saddam Hussein would use weapons of mass destruction against the United States or pass them to terrorists.

George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M; University, said that after a campaign focused on Kerry's perceived shortcomings, Bush has begun to speak out on his own achievements. But Edwards said that with the Iraq situation far from resolved and the economy's future uncertain, the strategy is no clear winner for the president.

"Every incumbent wants to make the election a referendum on a successful four years, but Bush can't do that," he said. "Still, after running a campaign focusing on savaging Kerry, he is starting to talk about Bush administration successes and saying things are getting better now. They know that savaging Kerry is not the way to run their entire campaign."


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