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Kerry fights label of economic pessimist

Challenges fiscal record of Reagan

SAN FRANCISCO -- Democrat John F. Kerry yesterday countered Republican attempts to label him a pessimist about the US economy, arguing that criticism of the Bush administration's record of job creation actually reflected optimism that the economy could do better.

The Massachusetts senator also challenged the fiscal record of the GOP's favorite optimist, Ronald Reagan -- Kerry's first broadside against the former president since his death June 5.

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Kerry, who is in California for a two-day campaign swing that the Bush reelection camp has dubbed ''the pessimism and misery tour," also launched a new line of attack against Washington Republicans, describing their attitude as ''my-way-or-the-highway, lock people out, don't let them take part in democracy." His criticism came in the aftermath of a partisan fight in the Senate Tuesday that left Kerry mostly frozen out of deliberations on one of his signature issues, veterans' benefits.

''These people are so petty, so sad, so political, all they could do was spend the whole day finding a way not to let John Kerry vote," the presumptive Democratic nominee told the annual convention of the Service Employees International Union.

Aides to Kerry's Republican colleagues in the Senate called the Democrat's remarks inaccurate and excessive. ''We spent a good part of the day trying to forge an agreement so we could vote, and had Senator Kerry stayed in Washington, he would have had an opportunity to cast his votes -- but he apparently ran out of patience and left in a pique," said Bob Stevenson, a spokesman for Senate majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee.

The Kerry and Bush camps have been tussling for weeks over which side is more guilty of negativity and name-calling, but yesterday's shots over the pessimism label -- and Reagan's legacy -- reflected a growing confidence within the Kerry camp that increasing numbers of voters share his criticisms of Republican leadership on the economy.

The Bush campaign, aware that polls are indicating that an increasing number of Americans believe the country is on the wrong track, has responded by characterizing Kerry as a dour, fundamentally negative insider who is trying to win the White House by dragging down Bush instead of offering positive alternatives. In their new television commercial this month titled ''Pessimism," the Bush team mocked Kerry for ''talking about the Great Depression" in saying that Bush has the worst record of creating jobs since Herbert Hoover.

Kerry aides said that the senator wanted to make the case that calling for economic progress was not divisive, and that Republicans were in fact dividing the electorate by painting Kerry as a doom-and-gloom candidate. Kerry's remark about Reagan was unusual and awkward, given the senator's praise for Reagan's optimism after his death.

Promising to ''restore fiscal sanity" to the federal government, Kerry recalled his support for the Clinton administration's efforts to reduce the deficit, saying, ''I was part of that effort in the 1990s that had the courage to do what Ronald Reagan, for all his rhetoric -- and God rest his soul, we loved him for his strength in many things -- but I don't recall vetoes of major appropriations bills. I recall a lot of talk about deficits; I don't recall balancing the budget. I recall deficits getting larger."

Before 2,200 people at a breakfast fund-raiser that raised $2 million, Kerry said that American innovation was backsliding under the Bush administration.

''We're the people who use our brainpower to harness it and be entrepreneurial and creative in spirit and create new products, new cures, new ways of doing things," Kerry said. ''But we've gone backwards on that in these last few years -- that's not a note of pessimism, that's a note of optimism. Because the optimism is, we can do better in the United States of America."

Later, outlining his plans to lower health-care premiums and fight for patients' rights, Kerry told cheering union members at the SEIU convention that he was not offering a pessimistic vision of the country, but rather dissatisfaction ''with the way things are."

''I've listened to some [Republicans] say, well gee-whiz, John Kerry is pessimistic about America because he's saying the way it is in America. Folks, I'm not pessimistic. I know we can do better for Americans. I know that we can provide better jobs for Americans," Kerry said.

The Bush campaign said that Kerry repeatedly chooses to ignore sunnier economic news.

''Every day, whether it is with regards to the economy, the war on terror, America's commitments to science and technology, John Kerry paints a picture of America in decline," said a Bush campaign spokesman, Steve Schmidt.

He also blasted Kerry for criticizing Reagan's fiscal record. ''Kerry's attack on President Reagan is beyond the pale, and will be very troubling to most Americans," he said.

Working on a few hours of sleep yesterday, after a late-night flight from Washington, Kerry was warmly received at the San Francisco breakfast fund-raiser and used his remarks to underscore his new slogan, ''Let America be America again."

While the fund-raiser was expected to draw scores of gay and lesbian voters, Kerry did not mention gay rights or gay marriage during his 25 minutes of remarks.

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com. 

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