With 59 days to go until the presidential election, the campaign of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. — trailing by double-digits in two recent national polls — has made a shift in strategy.
While decrying Republican attacks on Kerry's military service and fitness for office as unfair and personal, the Kerry campaign is also attacking the military service and fitness for office of President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. At the same time, the campaign almost seemed to be ceding the national security issue to the president as Kerry focuses on domestic issues.
"In the last four years, George Bush has served the American worker in the same way he served the Texas National Guard: He was absent without leave," said John Wagner, a local AFL-CIO executive, at a Kerry rally in Akron this morning.
Added Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic: "The simple truth is that John Kerry was in Vietnam and George Bush wasn't. It's as simple as that. … George Bush was hiding in the woods in Alabama and John Kerry was defending our country."
At a rally this evening in Steubenville, Gerald McIntee, head of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, continued the attack. "George Bush worked to go to the Texas National Guard by the connection from his father … Then he went to Alabama. All he had in Alabama was one tooth filled, then they never found him again. Dick Cheney had five deferments. One, two, three, four, five deferments … Who are they to question an individual who won three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star?"
McIntee was followed by Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio, who said, "John Kerry was carrying a gun through the jungles of Vietnam, while George Bush was neglecting his military responsibilities and carrying out his responsibilities as a cheerleader at Yale University."
There is no evidence that Bush was ever AWOL from the National Guard, and he was honorably discharged, though some questions remain about his attendance records during a stint with the Alabama National Guard.
Kerry was present for McIntee's, Strickland's and Plusquellic's comments, though not for Wagner's. Asked about the appropriateness of the remarks, Kerry spokesman David Wade said, "I think there's a lot of people who have a lot of strong feelings about the way John Kerry was attacked."
Wade denied any coordination or strategy with these four speakers — two labor leaders, two elected officials — who in a matter of 12 hours unleashed harsh personal attacks on what Cheney and Bush did or did not do during the Vietnam War. Asked if the campaign vetted the introductory remarks ahead of time, or would ask surrogates to refrain from such attacks in the future, Wade said, "We've never censored or vetted speakers."
Four weeks ago, a group of anti-Kerry veterans began running TV ads accusing the senator of inflating his war record, charges disputed by eyewitnesses and Navy records. The Kerry campaign called upon Bush to condemn the substance of the ads, but he did not.
Asked if Kerry would repudiate the charges Democratic surrogates made against Bush this morning, Wade replied, "The mayor obviously is entitled to his opinion. It's not something John Kerry talked about."
Wagner was taking the next logical step in a Democratic assault that began in its most comprehensive fashion Thursday night. The impetus for the new aggressiveness occurred Thursday morning when Kerry — reading newspaper clips about the Republican National Convention in his Nantucket, Mass., vacation home — became angered by a Washington Post headline describing Cheney's speech to the convention. The headline suggested Cheney called Kerry "unfit" to be president, though Cheney never actually used that precise word in his speech.
Nonetheless, the word rankled the decorated Vietnam veteran — and it did not escape his notice that Unfit for Command is the title of longtime Kerry nemesis John O'Neill's bestseller, which slams Kerry's military record.
So just minutes after Bush finished his speech, Kerry appeared at a rally in Springfield in which he said he "will not have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and who misled America into Iraq."
Kerry continued the assault Friday at a rally in Newark, slamming Cheney for avoiding military service during Vietnam. He told the crowd, "I'll let you and the American people decide whether five deferments makes you more 'unfit' than two tours of duty."
Kerry did not use the same line of attack Saturday morning; a Kerry campaign official said, "We want this debate to be about issues. But we will not hesitate to go full-throttle if the president wants to have that debate."
But even while Kerry and his surrogates are aggressively challenging why Bush and Cheney did not serve in the Vietnam War, Kerry has unmistakably changed the focus of his speeches away from national security.
While Kerry once made foreign policy, terrorism and homeland security major parts of his stump speech, he has shifted to a focus on bread-and-butter domestic issues — the economy, health care and education.
At a "front porch" event in Newark on Friday morning, Kerry teed off on the new job creation numbers, which indicated only modest job growth last month. "The president wants you to re-elect him for what?" Kerry asked. "Losing jobs?"
The state of Ohio has lost 230,000 jobs since Bush took office, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and next week in Newark, a local factory — The Longaberger Co. — is expected to lay off another 784 people. In total, Longaberger, which makes handcrafted baskets and home and lifestyle products including pottery, employs approximately 3,500 fewer workers today than it did three years ago.
On Saturday, Kerry called economic issues and jobs, "the most important part of this race," and charged that in Bush's Thursday night acceptance speech at the GOP convention, "the president mentioned jobs once. Once."
The president's speech actually contained 11 mentions of the word "jobs."
The Kerry team is clearly banking on domestic issues. In a new $50 million advertising campaign, Kerry's camp launched a series of new TV ads Friday that will stalk the president as he hops through six battleground states — Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. All of the ads discuss domestic issues — including health insurance in Ohio, manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin and the coal industry in West Virginia. A new poll from Newsweek magazine indicates that Kerry is the clear underdog in the race. A Newsweek poll taken immediately after the convention has Bush leading Kerry 54 percent to 43 percent among likely voters, essentially confirming a similar double-digit lead for the president revealed in a Time magazine poll taken during the convention, showing Bush up 52 percent to 41 percent.
A Kerry campaign official said the Democrats always expected an eight- to 10-point bounce for the president after his convention. The official noted that they had a minimal advertising presence on television during the month of August, but also acknowledged that the month was not a particularly good one for the campaign.
One of the few dollops of good news for Kerry in the Newsweek poll is that 49 percent of those polled were dissatisfied with the way things are going in this country, as opposed to 43 percent who are satisfied. In a naked attempt to appeal to that plurality, Kerry said to the Akron crowd today that, "If you believe America is going in the wrong direction, John Edwards and I ask you to join us for change."
ABC News' Drew Millhon and Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.