President hitting Western states in pre-debate campaign swing |

President hitting Western states in pre-debate campaign swing

Associated Press Writer

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) – President Bush is launching a focus on Western battlegrounds with no sign that the biting rhetoric he has aimed at Democratic challenger John Kerry in recent days is as aggressive as it’s going to get.

Bush spent one day off the campaign trail, relaxing on Sunday at his central Texas ranch and engaging in informal preparations for the final debate before Election Day – Wednesday in Tempe, Ariz.

On Monday, he stops in the far southeastern corner of New Mexico for a morning rally in the town of Hobbs, to begin several days of travel in the West, considered a second-tier battleground region behind the upper Midwest and big swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Later Monday, Bush hosts a lunch fund-raiser in Denver for Republican Pete Coors, who is running for a Senate seat being vacated by GOP Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and has another campaign rally at the scenic Red Rocks amphitheater.

Starting last week with a retooled stump speech and highlighted in their second debate, held Friday in St. Louis, Bush has delighted Republican supporters with a harder-hitting stance against Kerry.

Hoping to stunt the momentum the Massachusetts senator gained from a much-praised showing in the first debate and a week of difficult news for Bush on Iraq and the economy, aides are signaling the anti-Kerry arsenal is far from depleted.

“There’s a lot more in (Kerry’s) record that the American people are going to hear and know about by the time it’s all over,” said Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political adviser.

Looking ahead to the final debate, set to focus entirely on domestic issues, Bush is devoting more time to talking about Kerry’s record on taxes, health care and other domestic issues.

In the process, he is seeking to drive home two main characterizations of his rival: that Kerry is a die-hard liberal who lacks credibility because he tries to paint himself as otherwise. It’s the domestic version of the weak, flip-flopping image the Bush team has tried to attach to Kerry on Iraq and the war on terror.

Campaigning Saturday in Missouri, Iowa and Minnesota, Bush mocked Kerry’s debate promise never to raise taxes on those earning less than $200,000 as unbelievable and ridiculed his rival’s plan to increase the number of people with health insurance as a federal takeover of health care, a characterization Kerry says is false since his plan does not call for nationalized health care. Many of Kerry’s statements, Bush now likes to say, “don’t pass the credibility test.”

Bush then warns – his audience often chanting along with him – that Kerry “can run but he cannot hide” from a record that the president criticizes as both unimpressive and unabashedly liberal.

In chats with reporters, two Bush’s closest advisers – Rove and Karen Hughes – together used the word “liberal” nearly a dozen times to describe Kerry.

To Bush’s repeated claim that Kerry is the most liberal senator, the Democrat’s campaign notes that it was in only one congressional session, in 2003 when Kerry usually broke off campaigning only to vote on legislation critical to his party. When the National Journal magazine examined Kerry’s long-term Senate voting record, he ranked No. 11 in liberalism.

Bush’s attempt to increase his focus on domestic policy is buoyed by his advisers’ assessment that his much-improved performance in the second debate was strongest when the discussion turned to domestic issues, an area where Kerry believes he has the advantage with voters.

After spending Monday night in Denver, Bush holds a rally in Colorado Springs on Tuesday before heading for the Wednesday evening debate at Arizona State University in Tempe. He spends most of Thursday in Nevada.

New Mexico was won by Democrat Al Gore by just 366 votes in 2000 and could be just as tight this year.

Arizona, once a battleground state, has been all but ceded to Bush, who won the state four years ago. Nevada and Colorado, also Bush states in 2000, tilt toward the incumbent but remain on Kerry’s target list.