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As rivals focus, stances seem to blur

Rifts are few on big issues

WASHINGTON -- The homestretch of the presidential campaign appears to be set: Democrats are casting their candidate, John F. Kerry, as a battle-tested veteran who can turn a fresh page for the United States around the world, and who can boost jobs and health care at home. Republicans are portraying President Bush as a resolute, war-tested leader who will promote an ''ownership society" based on permanent tax cuts.

But despite a blizzard of ads and speeches that will emphasize the virtues of one candidate and the failings of the other between now and Election Day, differences between Bush and Kerry on many key issues seem relatively narrow. Both basically want to stay the course in Iraq and in the war on terrorism. And while they differ on whether to roll back tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and on the extent of health coverage, they are limited by the budget deficit from putting forward a laundry list of expensive programs.

Even the slogans trumpeted by both parties coming out of their conventions sound as if they had been cooked up in the same consultant's shop: Kerry wants a nation ''stronger at home, respected in the world," while Bush prefers ''a safer world and a more hopeful America."

In the end, analysts say, the campaign may be more about the perception of who is a better leader for the post-9/11 era than about details of their plans.

That explains why so much of the Republican convention was devoted to Bush's role in fighting terrorism, and why Kerry surrounded himself with swift-boat crewmates -- although those crewmates helped prompt others who had served in Vietnam to launch attacks on Kerry's wartime service and antiwar activities as being unfit to become president.

Kerry, who urged a positive tone at his convention, went on the attack as the clock struck midnight on Thursday night, as the Republican convention wrapped up. He called Bush ''unfit to lead this nation," saying he had misled America into the war in Iraq.

Each convention was far more about the two men who wanted to be president than about what they would do when they got there.

''There are lots of differences in this election in terms of environmental policy, health care, medical savings accounts, Social Security, you can go down the list," said Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report. ''But the Democrats seemed to spend their entire convention talking about Kerry's courage and valor and the administration being less than truthful in Iraq and conducting that war ineptly, and about values in the broadest sense. And Republicans spent all their time talking about Bush's heroism and leadership in the war in Iraq."

The campaign now could go in two directions, analysts say:

It might continue to be a heated discussion about whether Bush misled America and fought an unnecessary war, and whether Kerry lied to get his medals in Vietnam and is a flip-flopper who can't be trusted as president.

It might transform into a sober discussion of issues such as Middle East peace, health care, the deficit, and the shortfall facing Social Security and Medicare.

For most of this year, opinion polls have found that the vast majority of Americans are already committed to one of the two candidates. Sloganeering and attack ads are less likely to sway them. But for the thin slice -- reported at about 4 percent -- of voters who are undecided -- and who could decide the election -- the campaign may come down to key issues they care about. That is why the debates, tentatively set to begin on Sept. 30, are likely to be crucial.

Rothenberg analyzed the conventions, and the fall campaign, this way: ''If the election is about the war on terror, Bush wins. And if it's about pretty much anything else, Kerry wins."

On Thursday night, the president said Kerry wants to increase spending by $2 trillion and raise taxes. That may be an overstatement.

Kerry's plan does call for rolling back the Bush tax cut on those making more than $200,000, which would raise about $860 billion over 10 years, according to one analysis. Kerry wants to use that money for two main initiatives: One, to provide health care to about 27 million people, out of 45 million uninsured; two, to give more money for the ''No Child Left Behind" education bill. (Kerry has accused Bush of failing to keep his commitment to fully fund that legislation.)

Bush, by contrast, wants to make all of the tax cuts permanent. He said Thursday night that Kerry ''opposed lowering income taxes for all who pay them" -- without any effort to make clear that Kerry wants to keep the tax cuts for those making less than $200,000.

That sort of detail is much more likely to be discussed at the debates, in political advertisements, and among the policy specialists.

The domestic issue that perhaps most clearly divides the candidates -- health care -- has received relatively little attention. On Thursday night, Bush said he would continue to push for tax breaks that enable workers to accumulate savings for care. He added that he had met with ''many workers and small-business owners who have told me they are worried they cannot afford health care." This was an allusion to government reports that 45 million Americans did not have health insurance in 2003, up by 1.4 million from 2002.

Bush did not say how many more people would be covered by health insurance under his plan. According to one analysis, by Professor Kenneth Thorpe of Emory University in Atlanta, the Bush plan would cover an additional 2.4 million Americans; a Bush campaign official said the figure is 10 million. Either way, it is substantially less than the 27 million whom Kerry wants to cover. Kerry's plan, however, is costly and would be phased in gradually. According to the analysis by Thorpe, a former Clinton administration official, Bush's plan would cost $90 billion, while Kerry's would cost $653 billion.

Given President Clinton's inability to pass his health care plan, it is likely that any initiative would be a tough sell for Kerry if he becomes president, even if Democrats retake one or both houses of Congress.

Bush's main goal in his acceptance speech Thursday appeared to be to try to portray himself as the reliable leader in a time of terror and war; Vice President Dick Cheney suggested that Kerry would not lead without international permission.

''Senator Kerry began his political career by saying he would like to see our troops deployed 'only at the directive of the United Nations,' " Cheney said, quoting a comment that Kerry made to the Harvard Crimson in 1970. Cheney did not note that in his acceptance speech, Kerry rejected that notion, saying: ''I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security. And I will build a stronger American military."

While the Republican Party put some of its moderate stars on stage last week, including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, the issues that affect moderate voters might yet make a difference. For example, Bush did not mention the word ''abortion" in his speech, saying instead: ''We must make a place for the unborn child."

And he did not specifically mention his support for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, a measure opposed by his vice president, saying instead: ''Because the union of a man and woman deserves an honored place in our society, I support the protection of marriage against activist judges."

Such nuanced language may not survive a vigorous debate.

Stephen Hess, professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, said it was unrealistic to expect the conventions to be a debate on issues, particularly this year, with such a tiny sliver of undecided voters. But he said that will change during the next phase of the campaign.

''The people who are going to vote for Kerry know why," Hess said. ''They don't need anybody spelling out the issues, or why they hate George Bush, and, really, the same thing can be said for the Bush people. The conventions weren't about issues; it was about these two themes. . . . We're going into that issues phase right now, and it will be heightened when they have the debates."

One issue that is likely to receive far more attention in the debate is US dependence on foreign oil. That issue received a sentence in Bush's speech: ''To create jobs, we will make our country less dependent on foreign sources of energy." He did not mention that his plan relies heavily on opening the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge to oil drilling.

Kerry has proposed an array of alternative energy programs, issuing a campaign document that says: ''John Kerry has a vision to create a new Manhattan Project to make America independent of Middle East oil in 10 years by creating alternative fuels like ethanol and making cars more efficient."

Such proposals are bound to meet skepticism. It was in 1973 that President Nixon proposed Project Independence, saying he would make the United States energy self-sufficient by 1980.

Kranish reported from Washington; Abraham from New York City.

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