With the election drawing close, President Bush (search) and Sen. John Kerry (search) were vying for the votes of senior citizens Thursday, stumping on issues such as Social Security and a health care system that's in desperate need of some strong medicine.
Bush has called his challenger's health care proposal more "big government," and instead has promoted health care savings accounts and medical liability reform as the cure. Kerry argues that people would remain in charge of their health care under his proposed plan, and accused Bush of blocking common-sense cost-cutting while throwing the budget off balance with tax cuts aimed at the wealthy.
The two candidates appeared feisty and combative after having it out in Arizona for their third and final debate Wednesday night, tackling topics ranging from abortion and gay marriage to health care and fiscal policy.
"Listen, 19 days to go, and I'm looking forward to it. I enjoyed myself last night," Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One on his way to Las Vegas, saying his spirits are high and he's "enthusiastic" about his chances. "The debate phase of the campaign is over and now it's a sprint to the finish."
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When asked what his best moment was during Wednesday's debate, Bush said: "Telling people what I think. You know, the pundits and the spinners and the — they'll all have their opinion, but there's only one opinion that matters, and that's the opinion of the American people on November the 2nd. I feel great about where we are."
The president was out in Las Vegas on Thursday, but skipped the AARP (search) convention. AARP, which represents 36 million people over the age of 50, hosted both Kerry and first lady Laura Bush on Thursday.
Though the AARP was a major backer of the president's Medicare (search) prescription drug package, Bush-Cheney campaign aides said Bush turned down an invitation to speak to the group because they felt the event draws too many out-of-towners, and they wanted the president to spend time wooing Nevada residents instead.
In his address to the organization, Kerry asked if anyone caught Wednesday night's debate. "I think it went pretty well — I just hope I covered the Vegas odds," the Democratic candidate joked.
Bush: Kerry 'Out of the Mainstream'
Bush was joined at a Victory 2004 Rally by Republican governors, who were expecting about 20,000 people to attend. Twenty GOP governors will participate in 33 events in 14 states as part of the Bush-Cheney campaign's "Victory 2004 Leadership Matters Tour."
During the rally, Bush said the debates clarified the differences in his record and his opponent's.
"My record is one of lowering taxes, reforming education, providing prescription drugs to seniors, improving our homeland protection and waging an aggressive war against the terrorists," Bush said. "The senator's record is 20 years of out-of-the-mainstream votes, without many significant reforms or results."
On health care, Bush said he's brought both parties together to modernize Medicare, noting that many senior citizens are already getting discounts on prescription drugs and, beginning in 2006, all seniors will be able to get prescription drug coverage under Medicare.
"We're moving forward on health care, and there's much more to do," the president said, adding that every poor county should have a community health center. "We need to make health care more affordable and more available for all our people. We need a safety net for those with the greatest needs."
Bush also said small businesses should be able to pool their resources to buy insurance at the same discounts enjoyed by big businesses. Expanding health savings accounts for small-business workers will also allow people to pay lower premiums, Bush added. But junk medical malpractice lawsuits must be ratcheted down to keep health care costs down, he said, since such lawsuits cost the U.S. government $28 billion a year.
If elected to a second term, the president vowed to do more to fix the Social Security (search) system and advocated the idea that young workers should be able to save some of their payroll taxes in a personal account.
"Baby boomers like me are going to be just fine when it comes to Social Security," Bush said. "But our children and our grandchildren are understandably worried about whether Social Security will be around when they need it, and we need to be concerned about them."
Sen. John McCain (search), who was with Bush on Air Force One earlier Thursday, also touted Bush's Social Security privatization plan.
"The president has pledged to reform Social Security and bring America together on that issue. You can't just say that the status quo will prevail on Social Security," the Arizona Republican said. "Millions and millions of baby boomers are going to be facing retirement. This is an issue that has got to be the highest priority. The president has pledged to address it, and not be satisfied with the status quo."
Kerry: Bush 'Just Doesn't Get It'
Kerry, in his address to the AARP, said a "fresh start" is needed and that four more years of Bush will only lead to increased job losses, higher Medicare premiums and more squeezing of the middle class.
"The president just doesn’t get it," Kerry said. "He can spin until he’s dizzy, but at the end of the day, who does he think the American people are going to believe? George Bush or their own eyes?"
Saying Bush's Medicare bill is "full of empty promises and special interest giveaways," Kerry acknowledged that he and the AARP have disagreed on this issue but that "in the end, the president was not working for America's seniors. And maybe that’s why he wouldn’t even show up today to defend his bill."
Kerry charged that Bush's Medicare bill will take $550 billion from seniors' pockets, give $139 billion to the drug companies and "billions more" to the HMOs. He also took to task the president for blocking the importation of prescription drugs from Canada. Bush has said he wants to make sure the drugs aren't tainted before Americans consume them, but Kerry said the current flu-vaccine shortage is case in point why this policy should be changed.
"And if there still aren’t enough flu vaccinations, what’s the president’s solution? He says, don’t get one if you’re healthy. Sounds just like his health care plan: Hope you don’t get sick," Kerry said.
The Massachusetts senator also said the Bush administration's prescription drug card is only "adding to the confusion" and not giving real discounts.
"The truth is, after doing nothing to lower the cost of prescription drugs for you, the president now tells us that he’s solved the problem. Right," Kerry said. "And those weapons of mass destruction are going to turn up any day now.
"The problem is, unless we have a fresh start in America, George Bush will do the same thing with Social Security. We’ve seen the past, so we should not be fooled about the future. On this, the AARP and I are standing and fighting together," he said.
Although Kerry also took a slap at Bush's plan to privatize Social Security, he didn't offer any details about what he himself would to do to reform the retirement program if elected.
In Wednesday's debate, Kerry noted that 5 million Americans have lost their health insurance, and that 950,000 people had no health insurance at all in Arizona.
"This president has turned his back on the wellness of America," he said.
Kerry said he had a plan to extend the same sort of health care coverage that senators and congressmen receive to all Americans. Bush called Kerry's plan the equivalent of a national health care system.
"I want to remind people listening tonight that a plan is not a litany of complaints, and a plan is not to lay out programs that you can't pay for," Bush charged, saying that Kerry's proposed plan would cost the government $7,700 per family, or $5 trillion over 10 years. "It's an empty promise. It's called bait and switch."
In the Days Ahead
Following Thursday's events, Kerry planned to travel to Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada and Minnesota to give a series of speeches on the "big issues our nation confronts," Kerry adviser Tad Devine told reporters Wednesday.
Kerry, his running mate John Edwards and both their wives will participate in three to four events per day in the battleground states "to reach as many people as possible in the final days," Devine said.
Devine said the rigorous travel schedule for the candidates and their surrogates — as well as the paid media campaigns planned in 15 states and the "ground game" of grassroots supporters working voters at the local level — are all part of an effort to keep the Kerry "momentum" going.
This weekend, Bush-Cheney '04 supporters planned to host walks in their communities as part of the campaign's "Walk the Vote" effort to boost grassroots and voter-turnout efforts.
The Republican campaign expects to reach 1.6 million voters that way. The campaign will also launch a "W Stands for Women: Keeping America Secure Tour" over the next three weeks.