President Bush, brushing aside concerns about the unprecedented budget deficit, renewed his demand that Congress extend his tax cuts, and charged Monday that Democrats would hike taxes.
Sen. John Kerry, the front-running Democratic presidential candidate, said he agreed with Bush on keeping in place two tax cuts mentioned by Bush. But Kerry said Bush's overall economic policies had failed to create jobs.
"President Bush's failed economic policies have resulted in the loss of 3 million jobs and the biggest surpluses in history turned into the biggest deficits," Kerry said.
The duel between Bush and Kerry foreshadowed a major issue in this year's presidential campaign, with Bush trying to cast Democrats as tax-hikers and the Democrats saying Bush's tax cuts favored the rich.
The exchange exposed a fundamental policy difference: Bush wants all his tax cuts made permanent, while Kerry would halt tax reductions for Americans who earn more than $200,000.
The tax bills that Bush signed in 2001 and 2003 contain expiration dates next year on some provisions. The child tax credit would drop from $1,000 per child to $700, and some married couples would have to pay more than they would as two single individuals.
"You hear people in Washington saying, 'Oh let's not make the tax cuts permanent.' When you hear somebody say that, they're saying 'We're gonna tax you. We're gonna raise your taxes.'"
Kerry — like Bush — favors making permanent the child tax credit, and permanently ending the "marriage penalty," campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said.
Bush spoke at a window factory, the latest such plant he has chosen to showcase what he says are the favorable impacts of his tax policies on small business. His makeshift stage was near the production floor, and he was flanked by small business owners and an employee.
The White House bills these events as "conversations on the economy," but there is never disagreement, only positive reinforcement of Bush's message. Each of Bush's "conversation" partners Monday gave testimonials about the positive effect of his tax cuts.
"Mr. President, we have to keep this tax cut," said Sam Leto, chairman of Tampa Brass & Aluminum Corp.
Bush's tour of the factory floor was also highly stage-managed by the White House.
As he entered, a half-dozen workers were steadily polishing windows, as if Bush had walked into an ordinary shift on President's Day. News cameras snapped away as Bush picked up a caulking gun and hugged workers.
Five minutes after Bush and his entourage of journalists left, the factory floor was deserted, and there was no sign later in the day that production had resumed.
It was Bush's 19th visit to Florida, the state that decided the 2000 election, and Bush invited a symbol of that year's Florida recount to the event: Katherine Harris, then the Florida secretary of state, now a member of Congress from Florida.
The White House projects the deficit will hit $521 billion this year, the highest dollar figure ever. Bush has promised to cut it in half over five years, and he urged his listeners here to concern themselves with individuals' disposable incomes, not the federal treasury.
"Listen, we got the money in government. You don't have to worry about that," Bush said. "But (it's) the fact that there's more money in your pocket that made this economy strong. That's where we need to keep it."
While Bush reported "an optimism in our country that is undeniable," Democrats pointed out that more than 8 million Americans are out of work.
"Every day, President Bush travels the country telling hard working Americans that there is an economic turnaround, but they see no sign of it in their lives, their jobs or their paychecks," said Kerry. "This country cannot afford one more day of President Bush's misguided and irresponsible leadership."
Kerry and one-time rival Rep. Dick Gephardt began a four-day "jobs tour" of the country to underscore the Democratic front-runner's differences with Bush on the economy.
The Kerry campaign arranged a conference call Monday morning that linked up reporters with Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla. The former presidential candidate sidestepped questions about whether he was formally endorsing Kerry.
Graham blamed the administration for favoring the wealthy in tax cuts, for proposing rules that could deprive millions of workers of overtime and for an economic adviser's support of U.S. jobs going overseas.
Bush "might get a different picture" by speaking with unemployed Americans, Graham said.
"The president seems to go into a community, pick a facility where he knows he'll get a good response, announce victory and then go home," Graham said.