Campaign Themes Eclipsed By Iraq

GENERIC John Kerry George Bush Iraq
While most of the country was focused on news from Iraq, Democrat John Kerry was turning his attention to a subject that was supposed to have a major impact on the presidential election: health care.

At a round-table discussion with small business owners in Kentucky, Kerry vowed to help small business owners who want to offer health coverage but say they're strapped with soaring deductibles.

Kerry said his health care plan would offer serious assistance to small businesses, which he called the engine of the nation's economy.

"It's not a plan drawn up on the back of an envelope for a campaign," Kerry said in his latest effort to focus the campaign's debate on health care.

Kerry called for giving small business tax credits of up to 50 percent to help them provide coverage for low- to moderate-income employees. He also proposed having the federal government help small businesses cover the costs of catastrophic medical care, which he said would save a family as much as $1,000 each year.

"We can't just stand back and pretend that they aren't struggling," Kerry said. "We have to help them cover these costs, stay competitive so they can create jobs and help our economy grow."

But those remarks were unlikely to challenge the prisoner abuse scandal or the beheading of an American civilian in Iraq for top story of the day.

"There's a real problem when you want to be focused on one thing and the news wants to focus on something else," said Kathleen Jamieson, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center.

The "theme week" is only the latest effort by Kerry to devote blocks of time to a single issue. He spent several days last week discussing his plans for education, after wrapping a jobs bus tour of several battleground states.

But although reports about Iraqi prisoner abuse dominate the national news media, Kerry pulls heavy coverage from local and regional outlets as his campaign makes its way through electorally important states. His appearances often lead local news broadcasts and appear on the front pages of local newspapers, generally reflecting his message.

Jamieson said the best Kerry can hope for is good local news coverage, especially in competitive states.

"He doesn't need to win the nation," she said. "He needs to win the battleground states."

Bill Carrick, a California-based Democratic consultant, said Kerry's time-consuming focus on issues is laying the groundwork for voters, many of whom still know little about him, recent polls have shown.

"You lay down a lot of these issues as a foundation or a base and use that as a base for the campaign later on," he said.

Some analysts have argued that Kerry already has carved out a stark difference with Mr. Bush on the issue with sharp criticism of the president. Last week, Kerry criticized the administration's handling of the reports of abuse by saying that if he were president he would not be "the last to know what is going on in my command."

Kerry's focus on issues other than the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners also may not be a bad thing, Carrick said.

With Mr. Bush and his administration facing heavy pressure and criticism from the scandal, the Democrat does not need to comment on the situation more than necessary, Carrick said. He said the contrast between a president on the defensive and a challenger talking about serious issues, like health care, can help Kerry.

"It may be good that Kerry is out there talking about bedrock, serious issues that affect real people while Bush is wrestling with this," Carrick said.

Mr. Bush was attempting to change the subject Tuesday as he began a three-day focus on education with a trip to Arkansas.

The president defended his "No Child Left Behind" program against critics who say it demands high test scores, but doesn't provide the cash to help schools succeed.

In a muggy gymnasium in Van Buren, Ark., Mr. Bush said the law inaugurated a "new era" of excellence in public education. He declared, "At some point, there has to be an end to mediocrity."

The plan mandates tough testing and gives all students until 2014 to become proficient in reading and math.

Mr. Bush's tour, which will also take him to Maryland and West Virginia, follows a similar trip by Kerry last week.

Kerry voted for the Bush plan but is among those now accusing the president of reneging on promises to fund it.