GWEN IFILL: The Bush and the Kerry campaigns hit election battleground states this week. Kwame Holman has that.
KWAME HOLMAN: John Kerry began his day with an appearance on the radio show "Imus in the Morning." Kerry once again called for Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to resign and criticized the administration's war plan, including the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, saying: "This thing has been so extraordinarily mismanaged and ineptly prosecuted." Afterward, Kerry returned to his theme of the week: health care. At a town hall meeting in Orlando, Florida, the senator noted he got excellent care when he was treated for prostate cancer last year.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: Thanks to your pocketbooks, your taxpayer money, senators and congressmen have given themselves very good health care, and I intend to hold that up as the gold standard for Americans, and if you will make me... (applause) ...if you will trust me with the presidency of the United States I promise, the first... (applause) first legislation that I will introduce within 24 hours of being sworn in to the Congress of the United States is my plan to make the same health care plan that senators and congressmen can get available and accessible to anyone in America and make sure that health care is not a privilege for the elected and the connected; it's a right that's accessible and affordable to all Americans. That's what we need to do. Let me tell you about my plan. It gives you a choice. But the choice is a smart choice. It's a choice that allows people 55-64 to be able to buy into Medicare early. It's a choice that guarantees we cover all children in the United States of America immediately, no matter what -- automatic.
And the other thing I do, just to build on what the mayor said a moment ago, the mayor said that Senator Kerry is going to do something about the people who don't have coverage. I just explained that to you. That helps families. All these parents who are struggling with their kids, we're going to help them. But I do something else. I help the 163 million Americans who get their health insurance where they go to work today. They have coverage. Like the people we were talking about. But it's not good enough, it's not adequate or they can't afford it -- and I reduce the cost of that health care for all Americans who get it today in the work place, and we reduce the premiums and here's how I do it. Very simple: I roll back George Bush's unaffordable tax cuts for the wealthiest people in the country.
KWAME HOLMAN: Kerry said President Bush has failed to address the nation's health care needs.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: George Bush has had four years to offer America a real health care plan and he hasn't, he's had four years to try to make sure people were covered but guess what, four million more have lost coverage under George Bush, and he never talks about how we bring the uninsured into the system.
KWAME HOLMAN: A new Kerry ad this week, released only online, hits the same theme.
PRESIDENT BUSH: I'll have the goal, the idea of making sure people have affordable health care and insurance policies, to make sure they're able to pay for them.
KWAME HOLMAN: The latest ad from the Bush campaign doesn't mention his opponent at all, instead focusing on the president's theme of the week: education.
AD SPOKESPERSON: As governor, George Bush enacted reforms that produced dramatic results. As president, he signed the most significant education reforms in 35 years. Today public schools require raised standards, well-qualified teachers, accountability to parents because no child in America should be left behind.
KWAME HOLMAN: A three-day, three-stop tour took Mr. Bush to states that could be tossups in November. Yesterday it was Arkansas. Today, the president touted his No Child Left Behind and Reading First education programs in Bethesda, Maryland.
PRESIDENT BUSH: We've got a problem in America, and the problem is not every child can read at grade level. So we're here to discuss a strategy to insist that every child does read at grade level.
KWAME HOLMAN: The president talked about the promise of the No Child Left Behind law.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We believe every child can learn. We need to raise the bar, raise the standards. It's what I call challenging the soft bigotry of low expectations; it means basically that when you walk into a classroom full of the so-called "hard to educate," you don't quit. That's what it means. There must be consequences for schools that won't teach and won't change, or something has to happen other than just posting scores to get parental involvement.
If the goal is to have children reading at grade level by the third grade, which is a goal we have set -- and by the way, some people have been criticizing the No Child Left Behind Act because they say the standards are too high. I don't think that's too high a standard, to expect a child to read at third grade when they're in the third grade. As a matter of fact, you know, I think it is -- I think it is perfectly reasonable to ask school districts to at least accomplish that. Part of making sure that a Reading First program works, part of making sure that children can read at the grade level by the third grade is to make sure you got teachers who can teach by the third grade, teachers who can teach curriculum to make sure children can read by the third grade; 1.2 million students are being affected.
KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush visits a high school in West Virginia tomorrow. John Kerry will be in Little Rock, Arkansas.
GWEN IFILL: A new poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that three-quarters of those surveyed have seen the photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse and that for first time, a majority of Americans say the war is not going well. In part because of this, Senator Kerry holds a slight lead, 50 percent to 45 percent over the president, an edge mitigated by even more revealing numbers. Forty-two percent say Kerry changes his mind too much, while 68 percent are willing to describe the president as "stubborn."
Now, what does all this mean in a wartime election year? Joining us to explain some of the story behind these numbers is Andrew Kohut, the director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Andy, let's start by talking about those pictures. Seventy-six percent say they saw them. That's a lot.
ANDREW KOHUT: It sure is in a media world which is so fragmented to get almost all Americans seeing such things is extraordinary. Gallup had a poll which showed that all of the people who have seen it said they're bothered by it. There's lots of divisions of opinion about the war, there's no divisions of opinion about these photographs. They're awful.
GWEN IFILL: And has a direct effect on the president's approval ratings?
ANDREW KOHUT: The president's approval ratings compared to two weeks ago when things were not so good in Iraq as well have fallen back into negative territory; 44 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove -- that 44 percent is a long way from the 50 percent safety mark, which is generally a signal that president may win reelection or have an easy time of winning reelection.
GWEN IFILL: It has been kind of precipitous. We talked a couple weeks ago about this kind of survey at the height of what was called the Shia uprising and even then the president was still holding his own and suddenly this slip.
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, there was a bit of a rally to the president then. But right and there the public was disappointed by what was going on in Iraq. Now they're shocked by what is going on in Iraq. The Gallup Poll found for the first time Americans saying well maybe this war is not worth it. But the consensus about the war is tottering and shaken but we don't have the so-called tipping point. We still find most Americans saying we should keep our troops there until Iraq is stable. There is not a broad majority of all of a sudden say let's get -- you know, let's get American forces out.
GWEN IFILL: So John Kerry doesn't automatically get a boost out of this.
ANDREW KOHUT: No, he doesn't automatically get a boost but President Bush is weakened by it. Our horse race poll has a small Kerry lead compared to an even race two weeks ago. When you look at behind the numbers, it is mostly people saying they have an unfavorable opinion of President Bush -- that is the people who are supporting Kerry. It is not so much -- not really so much a voter choice as it is a barometer on the times and voting thumb's up or thumb's down on President Bush. And these are bad times for him.
GWEN IFILL: Like the woman in Denver said maybe between now and May and November, people will have short memories and they may not remember this bad patch.
ANDREW KOHUT: Maybe not. There are going to be two processes that go on between now and then. First people are going to come to the view that President Bush deserves reelection or doesn't or he is a maybe, and then the public is going to decide whether Senator Kerry would be a safe bet to do a better job.
GWEN IFILL: The other interesting thing you did in this poll was you asked people for one word they could come up with to describe George W. Bush, John Kerry, even Dick Cheney. What kinds of words did they come up with?
ANDREW KOHUT: Well, what we saw was real change. The critics of George Bush which are quite numerous, weren't saying that he is a liar or he doesn't tell truth, but they're saying he is incompetent, and this reflects concerns about Iraq. And Kerry's positive words went down as well. The percentage -- numbers saying honest, which was very high in March, has plummeted and people are just saying okay. And there are many more people saying negative things about Kerry, especially mentioning... referring to his flip-flops, changing his mind and maybe not being so honest.
GWEN IFILL: In Bush's case, the change in view had to do with public events, in Kerry's case it's about advertising maybe?
ANDREW KOHUT: It may be in part about advertising but it also may be his losing a bit of the glitter that he had and the glow that he had a couple months ago when he was the champion of the Democratic Party.
GWEN IFILL: What about those key swing voters, those folks who haven't made up their minds? Is there any indication in your polling right now that they're shifting one way or the other?
ANDREW KOHUT: They still are deadlocked but there are fewer of them. In February we had 29 percent, went down to 26 percent in March. It's now about 20 percent. So this is a process. Not all people make up their mind at one time and bad news for a president doesn't immediately translate into a surge of opinion for his opponent.
GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to gauge whether the beheading incident involving Nicholas Berg is going to have that same kind of offsetting effect, the negative backlash against the Iraqi abuse pictures and now people saying maybe this happens in war?
ANDREW KOHUT: Gwen, of course that's possible, that there will be a bit of a rally. But I think it's hard to predict. The one thing we know, there are more bad pictures coming out of Iraq and people are going to say this is awful. And that's what we saw last week. That was the reaction that we had last week, people saying this is awful.
GWEN IFILL: Andy Kohut as always, thank you.
ANDREW KOHUT: You're welcome.