ORLANDO, Fla. – When John Kerry (search) wants to make a point, he rips the headlines from the day's newspapers and works them into his stump speeches, highlighting bad news about the economy, gas prices, health care costs and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His campaign said the Democratic presidential candidate uses the news to present evidence of the mistakes and mismanagement by President Bush (search) that Kerry talks about at campaign stops.
"What we see in the news is George Bush's failed record," said Kerry spokeswoman Allison Dobson. "Either George Bush isn't in touch with what's really going on, or he either doesn't care or is misleading the public."
Bush's campaign said the pattern shows an opponent grasping at headlines while the president concentrates on bigger issues.
"Theirs is a rudderless campaign," said Bush strategist Karl Rove. "That kind of tactic is effective in a congressional or Senate campaign, but it's not enough when you're running for the president of the United States. This is about big issues in a serious time."
Recent news reports folded into Kerry's stump speeches include:
-- Several about military operations in Iraq, such as a report that the top general there had warned Pentagon officials last winter about a shortage of supplies. Kerry also has seized on a report that the former top U.S. administrator in Iraq believed more troops were needed on the ground after Saddam Hussein was toppled from power, and a report that said the former Iraqi leader wasn't actively developing weapons of mass destruction at the time of the U.S. invasion.
-- That Bush told some of his biggest donors Social Security privatization would be high on his second-term agenda;
-- The season's flu vaccine shortage;
-- Persistent rumors that Bush will reinstate the draft after the election; and
-- The Labor Department's most recent employment report, showing a net loss of jobs on Bush's watch.
The list ranges from purely statistical, like the jobs report, to the less provable rumors about the draft. Kerry typically ties the information back to a broader argument he's trying to build against the president's leadership.
"Your management or mismanagement of this war ... has made America less safe, not more safe," Kerry told a crowd in West Palm Beach on Monday. He had just described a story in The Washington Post about reported supply shortages.
"What it says is that the news is what's holding the president accountable," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (search) at the University of Pennsylvania. "If the president were getting good news out of the news, he'd be quoting the news. You use the news when it's advantageous to you."
Not so, said the Bush campaign.
"Candidates for president typically, in the final weeks of the campaign, talk about their vision for the country and talk about the difference between their vision and their opponent's vision," said spokesman Steve Schmidt. They're not "trolling newspapers looking for headlines to mischaracterize."
On the other hand, voters' impressions of Kerry could turn if good news appears in the two weeks before the Nov. 2 election, such as progress in Iraq or the capture of terrorist mastermind Usama bin Laden (search).
"Kerry's more vulnerable to positive news than Bush is to negative news," said Wayne Fields, director of American culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis (search). "Bush is running against Kerry, and Kerry is running against Bush's policy."
To the extent either candidate talks in principle instead of data, it makes it harder for the opponent to fashion a rebuttal, Jamieson said.
On Iraq, it's easier for Bush to stand on his principle that the United States should attack terrorists before they strike, than it is for Kerry to tear down the argument with evidence of mismanagement, she said. On health care, it's easier for Kerry to proclaim a principle of universal coverage than it is for Bush to show he's made progress with examples from the record.