Reflecting his growth in the polls, John Kerry is tightly focusing his fire on Republicans as he charges through the final weekend before the New Hampshire primary, with only the most glancing of swipes at his Democratic rivals.
Those rivals, meanwhile, were scrambling to find ways to slow momentum that is reflected in polling showing the Massachusetts senator building a significant lead in advance of Tuesday’s party primary.
Kerry accused President Bush and his administration on Friday of shortchanging health and pension programs for veterans. The tough, patriotic rhetoric from the White House isn’t backed up by actions, he told a group of 400 activists, most of them veterans.
“The first definition of patriotism is keeping faith with those who have worn the uniform of the country,” said Kerry, a decorated Navy veteran of Vietnam. He said some veterans must wait too long for health care, while others who are disabled receive a reduced pension.
On Saturday, Kerry was adding to his list of backers with an announcement by the League of Conservation Voters that he had its endorsement. It is the first major environmental group to pick among the Democrats.
A string of polls has shown Kerry building a substantial edge over former front-runner Howard Dean; Dean was recasting his theme in hopes of regaining an insurgent image that had propelled him to the top of the pack, all before a poor third-place showing in Iowa.
“Listen to what they say, ‘You can have middle-class tax cuts, you can have health care for all,”’ Dean said of his rivals. “You believe that?”
As for his prospects, the former Vermont governor said: “I think we’ve turned the corner and we’re going to come back up. The question is, can we close the gap between now and Tuesday?”
Kerry was seeking to stay above the fray, collecting the endorsement of former Vice President Walter Mondale and campaigning with South Carolina Sen. Ernest Hollings, who took a veiled swipe at candidate Wesley Clark, a retired Army general.
“We’re going to teach that fellow in South Carolina that there are more lieutenants than there are generals,” said Hollings.
Kerry also campaigned with former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a triple amputee from the Vietnam War, who said of the candidate: “He’s been there, done that and gotten a few holes in his T-shirt.”
This weekend, Kerry was cruising along from town meeting to town meeting, with no need to shake up the dynamic of a race where polls show his lead widening.
“More of the same,” spokesman David Wade said of Kerry’s weekend plans. “Nothing big planned.”
Mired in the polls, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman released a new commercial seeking to tout his tough stance on the war in Iraq and casting himself as “a national leader in the fight against terrorism and tyranny.” It says Lieberman was the strongest candidate in supporting the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
Kerry’s surprising win in Iowa — coupled with Dean’s equally surprising poor showing — has given him a powerful surge in New Hampshire polls, moving well past his rivals. Shown the results of the public polling by a reporter on his campaign bus, Kerry issued a mock shiver. “Numbers scare me,” he said.
Dean, Clark hope to gain momentum
Dean and Clark were campaigning for a respectable enough showing to continue down the trail of primaries. Bill Clinton pulled that off in 1992, losing the state as he was mired in allegations of womanizing. His second-place showing allowed him to claim the moniker of the “Comeback Kid,” eventually claiming the nomination and the White House.
Underscoring the tactic, Dean dropped into a music store to strum a guitar to the tune of “Come Back Baby.”
Clark hopes to stay respectable to compete in South Carolina, which has a heavy military presence, and in six other states on Feb. 3.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was splitting his time between New Hampshire and South Carolina, stumping in the morning in New Hampshire before flying south.
If the other Democrats were seeking to arrest Kerry’s momentum, Republicans were clearly taking note of his growing position the polls.
GOP national chairman Ed Gillespie fired a broadside at the new front-runner. “Whether it’s economic policy, national security policy or social issues, John Kerry is out of sync with most voters,” he said in a speech in Virginia.
Liberal ratings groups actually give Kerry a higher rating that his Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward Kennedy.
“Who would have guessed it? Ted Kennedy is the conservative senator from Massachusetts!” Gillespie said.
Whatever Republicans think of him, Kennedy is popular among Democrats and plans to stump with Kerry on Sunday.