Video: White House Derby

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/5/2004 3:26:01 PM ET 2004-03-05T20:26:01

President Bush and his Democratic rival, John Kerry, tangled on employment and taxes Friday as the race for the presidency settled into a two-man contest.

Kerry, leaving on a Southern campaign swing to tout his jobs agenda, criticized the Bush administration’s efforts to put people to work after figures released Friday showed no movement in the unemployment rate of 5.6 percent.

“At this rate the Bush administration won’t create its first job for more than 10 years,” the Massachusetts senator told reporters as he prepared to fly to New Orleans. “Americans have a clear choice in this election. They can either suffer with more and more job losses that rip the heart out of our economy or they can give George Bush a new job.”

The Labor Department reported the economy added just 21,000 positions in February and also downgraded job gains for January from 112,000 to 97,000. Democrats consistently note that more than 2.2 million payroll jobs have been lost during the Bush administration, the worst job-creation record of any president since Herbert Hoover.

In a statement, Kerry noted recent criticism of him from Vice President Dick Cheney, saying, “This week, Dick Cheney said that if America had my kind of tax policies instead of George Bush’s policies that we ‘would not have had the kind of job growth that we’ve had.’ Mr. Vice President, you better believe it.”

Bush campaign's view
The Bush campaign viewed the additional jobs as a positive sign for the president’s policies. “Today’s job report demonstrates the importance of having a president in the White House who is committed to a vigorous job creation agenda of lower taxes, lower health care costs and lower energy costs,” campaign spokesman Terry Holt said in a statement.

“John Kerry’s 20-year record of supporting higher taxes for businesses and families would derail America’s economic recovery and send American jobs overseas,” Holt said.

Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was offering a populist focus on jobs at a rally in New Orleans with several prominent Democrats, headed by Sens. John Breaux and Mary Landrieu. He was following that with appearances in Texas, Mississippi and Florida, all of which hold nominating contests next Tuesday.

At the same time, Kerry is looking to shape the political debate and counter Bush’s new television commercials. Aides said there would be no break in the schedule, although the nomination is in hand.

“With the party as energized as it is right now, it’s important not to rest,” spokesman David Wade said.

Democrats gave Kerry solid marks for his first days as the nominee-in-waiting and moving from contender to candidate, raising the issue of a running mate and planning the swing through the South, his toughest region.

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“He can’t write off the South,” said Dane Strother, a veteran consultant and Louisiana native.

Consultant Jenny Backus agreed.

Time to go national
“Kerry has to prove he’s a national candidate not afraid to take his vision everywhere,” she said, arguing that he must “very aggressively move to expand the map as much as possible.”

Others warned that Kerry still faces a crucial phase, although the election is eight months off.

“It is critically important for John Kerry to prevent Bush from defining this election as being about Kerry,” said veteran Democrat Steve Murphy. “The next couple of months will be more important than the last couple of months.”

Kerry was embarking on a 20-city fund-raising tour later this month in hopes of collecting a quick $15 million or more to help counter Bush’s re-election team in the coming weeks, his campaign said Thursday.

Meanwhile, the first poll since Kerry locked up the Democratic presidential nomination showed him tied with President Bush and independent Ralph Nader capturing enough support to affect the outcome.

Bush had the backing of 46 percent, compared with 45 percent for Kerry, while Nader, the 2000 Green Party candidate who entered the race last month, was at 6 percent in the survey, which was conducted for The Associated Press by Ipsos-Public Affairs.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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