WASHINGTON – As a Labor Department report Friday showed February's job growth to be far less than expected, presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry had a lot to work with as he criticized President Bush.
"At this rate the Bush administration won't create its first job for more than 10 years," Kerry told reporters on his way to New Orleans on Friday, where he was attending a rally with several prominent Democrats, headed by Sens. John Breaux (search) and Mary Landrieu (search ).
"Americans have a clear choice in this election," he continued. "They can either suffer more and more job losses, or give George Bush a new job in November and start putting Americans back to work."
He was to follow that with appearances in Texas, Mississippi and Florida, which along with Louisiana hold primaries next Tuesday.
Kerry also criticized Bush's new television commercials, airing in 20 states, which he said misappropriate scenes from the post-Sept. 11 World Trade Center.
The White House countered that the Sept. 11 images were a defining moment of the Bush presidency.
"Sept. 11 changed the equation in our public policy. It forever changed the world," said press secretary Scott McClellan (search ). "The president's steady leadership is vital to how we wage war on terrorism."
Bush kept up his attack on Kerry, again accusing him of flip-flopping on issues critical to the American electorate.
"My opponent has not offered much in the way of strategies to win the war, or policies to expand our economy," Bush said Thursday night at a campaign appearance in California. "So far all we hear from that side is a lot of old bitterness and partisan anger. Anger is not an agenda for the future of America."
Bush's Achilles' heel is the jobs situation. Figures out Friday showed that employers added just 21,000 jobs to payrolls in February, far below the 125,000 economists had projected. To compound the bad news, January new-jobs figures were revised downward from 112,000 to 97,000.
The overall unemployment rate remained steady at 5.6 percent, below the 1990s average, but with 8.2 million workers looking for employment, the numbers could become a liability for Bush.
The Bush campaign spun the added jobs as a sign the president's policies were working, and warned that changes would undermine progress.
"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," campaign spokesman Terry Holt said in a statement.
"The last thing we need in a president is higher taxes in the first 100 days of his administration," Holt added. "Our nation's economic recovery should not be derailed by bad policies like over-regulation, over-taxation, and over-litigation."
Treasury Secretary John Snow (search ) acknowledged that weak job growth was not what the administration hoped to see.
"We got some jobs numbers this morning — a pick-up of some 21,000. That's not where we need to be," Snow said. "Businesses create jobs, they expand their operations when they see the cash register ringing. ... The only way to get that happening is, of course, by expanding the economy."
Kerry and other Democrats criticized the administration for the lackluster growth.
"For over three years now, since the start of this recession, George Bush has promised the American people that new jobs are on the way. But he's over-promised and under-delivered," Kerry said in a statement.
"Today's jobs numbers show how far we are from any of the president's promises being kept," Kerry added. "The fact is that every new job created this month was for government employees. There were zero private-sector jobs created — no manufacturing jobs."
"As alarming as these statistics are," chimed in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, "they don't even count the 392,000 workers who have dropped out of the labor force because they have lost all hope of ever finding a job."
Race Tight Eight Months Out
A Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll released Friday afternoon showed Bush and Kerry exactly even. The two candidates were both at 44 percent in a poll taken Wednesday and Thursday of 900 registered voters.
Bush's approval rating stood at 48 percent, unchanged from last month. His favorable rating was 52 percent, with 40 percent unfavorable. Kerry's favorability ratings were 47 percent favorable, 28 percent unfavorable.
An Associated Press-Ipsos Public Affairs poll taken from Monday to Wednesday of Super Tuesday week showed Kerry and Bush neck-and-neck with Bush at 46 percent and Kerry at 45 percent.
Democrats also have reason to worry. Independent candidate Ralph Nader (search ), who entered the race late last month, took 6 percent of the theoretical vote in the AP poll.
Nader, who scored 2.7 percent of the vote in 43 states in 2000, is blamed by many for denying Gore crucial votes that would have given him the presidency. Nader denies he is, or was, a spoiler.
In the AP poll, Bush's job approval rating was at 48 percent, with 49 percent disapproving — essentially the same as last month, when 47 percent approved of his job performance.
Raising the Funds to Compete
Kerry has a long way to go to match Bush's fund-raising take. He's starting a 20-city tour later this month to remain competitive against the $155 million war chest held by Bush-Cheney '04.
Bush scored $1.5 million more for his campaign, and another $3.5 million for the Republican National Committee, during his two-day visit to California this week, where he appeared with popular Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (search).
Coasting off his Super Tuesday nine-for-10 victory, Kerry hopes to raise $15 million in the coming weeks, and another $105 million down the road.
Dane Strother, a veteran consultant and Louisiana native, thinks the money crunch will be a problem for Kerry, who will have to spend a lot of time and money in the South to win over a small number of undecided voters.
"These guys, Bush and Kerry, are going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to get 6 points of the 10 percent that's available," Strother said. "It's 45-45 right now in this country."
Consultant Jenny Backus agreed.
"Kerry has to prove he's a national candidate not afraid to take his vision everywhere," she said, adding that he must "very aggressively move to expand the map as much as possible."
Kerry faces several other challenges, including finding a running mate and properly framing his Vietnam experience. The vice-presidential search is being led by Jim Johnson (search), a prominent Washington Democrat and former aide to Vice President Walter Mondale (search).
"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."
Murphy also warned that though Election Day is eight months away, voters usually have pretty clear opinions long before then.
"It is a complete fallacy that presidential elections are decided after the World Series" in October, Murphy said. "Most of them are set in concrete by Labor Day."
Kerry, as well as his surrogates, will be out in force from now until the Democratic convention, said aides. On Friday evening, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark (search ) — who dropped out of the presidential running late last month — planned to stump for his former rival at the Kansas Democratic Party's Ad Astra Dinner in Topeka.
The Trouble With Ads
Meanwhile, the Bush campaign fought off criticism of its latest ads. The TV spots, launched Thursday, highlight the positive elements of the Bush presidency and focus on the economy, health care and Bush's response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Some ads feature the destroyed World Trade Center, including an images of a dead firefighter being carried out of the rubble draped in an American flag.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (search ), in office during the attacks, told Fox News painful images should not be left out.
"It was the worst attack on the U.S. in history," Giuliani said. "He was a new president and, in my view, the reaction he had to it was the reaction a great leader would have."
"Those are parts of his presidency — difficult parts, emotional parts, but parts of his presidency," Giuliani added. "Seeing the image of the charred, destroyed World Trade Center brings back painful memories for me."
"You can't leave out the picture," he concluded. "You have to do it in a tasteful way."
Some Bush defenders commented that if Bush can't use images of Sept. 11 in ads, then Kerry ought not to be able to use images of the Vietnam War, in which Kerry heroically fought and of which he reminds voters of every chance he gets.
"The reality is, both are part of the campaign," Giuliani said. "Obviously, they're going to be raised on both sides."
The International Association of Firefighters (search), which has endorsed Kerry, called for Bush to stop using Sept. 11 images, as did some victims' families.
"It's absolutely inappropriate," said Colleen Kelly, who lost her brother, Bill Kelly Jr., and who leads Peaceful Tomorrows (search), a group for victims' families. "There are certain memories and certain images that I consider sacred."
Other victims' relatives supported the Bush ads.
"These images honor those whose lives were lost," said Debra Burlingame, whose brother, Charles, was the pilot of the plane that hijackers crashed into the Pentagon.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (search) said he did not object to reminding "the country and the world about the sacrifices that the New York City fire department and police department and civilians made."
Bush on the Trail
At the Bush-Cheney re-election headquarters, campaign manager Ken Mehlman (search) was orchestrating voter identification, registration and mobilization drives.
"There is no more compelling appeal for a candidate than from one's neighbor or co-worker, or friend," said Holt. "The question is, how do you harness that, and how do you make sure that it is working for you in the direction that you want it to?"
Bush's re-election staff has recruited county chairmen in each of the 1,189 counties in the 18 states it believes will be the most competitive in November. It combs voter rolls to look for reliable Republicans and sends volunteers far and wide to reach persuadable independents and Democrats.
Republicans are using "Reggie the Rig" — a $400,000 18-wheeler truck — to register voters and spread the party gospel at racetracks, stadiums, shopping malls and college campuses.
"When people aren't coming to us, we plan to go to them," said Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie.
The president's team is also working with congressional leaders such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas to oversee grassroots GOP efforts in Congress.
Fox News' Major Garrett, Kelly Wright, Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.