WASHINGTON – With ghastly images of abuse and decapitation out of Iraq, President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry (search) welcome any opportunity to focus on bread-and-butter issues on the homefront.
The opponents in the presidential race barely mentioned Iraq during campaign stops Tuesday in the South. Bush stuck to education with a passing reference to troops spreading freedom and peace in the war-torn nation.
Kerry preferred to discuss rising health care costs and avoided answering directly when asked what he would do about abuse of Iraqi prisoners if he were commander in chief of U.S. soldiers.
"The important thing is for the country now to get its path in Iraq correct," the Massachusetts senator said. "We need to come together and I'm hopeful that we will."
The touchy situation in Iraq could be a political liability for both candidates.
Thomas Baldino, a political scientist at Pennsylvania's Wilkes University, said Bush should do what he can to deflect attention from Iraq because the situation threatens the public view of his wartime leadership. He said Kerry should do a better job promoting his alternative vision for the war, but must be careful when talking about the prisoner abuse.
"If he were to criticize the atrocities in Iraq, people could say, `Are you using this to disparage U.S. forces?"' Baldino said. "It opens a whole Pandora's box that I don't think he wants to get into."
Bush is visiting Arkansas, Maryland and West Virginia this week to defend his education plan, which requires schools to track and improve student performance. Kerry had an education tour last week, where he criticized Bush for failing to give schools enough money and touted his own plans to stem dropouts and hire more teachers.
This week, Kerry is focusing on his plan to control rising medical costs and extend health care coverage to those without it during stops in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Florida. Kerry would pay for his plan with money raised by repealing Bush's tax cut for people who make more than $200,000 a year.
Bush wants to make his tax cuts permanent and says he would help uninsured workers with tax credits and control costs by limiting jury awards for medical malpractice.
Kerry routinely holds a double-digit lead over Bush on the issue of health care, though education has been more competitive. Kerry leads on the issue in some polls, and the two have been closely matched in other surveys.
Both topics lag far behind the economy and terrorism-war as the top issues for voters this year.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, said her research shows domestic issues are still important to voters, despite "the news vortex of Iraq."
She said education is dropping as a voter concern as summer vacation approaches, but she suspects it will re-emerge closer to the Nov. 2 election. Health care remains a top issue for individual voters, she said, although they say Iraq is a bigger national concern.
"Every time somebody hits a doctor's office, tries to pay for a medical procedure or goes to pick up a prescription drug, whether they have insurance or not, they are aware there is a high cost to health care," she said.