WASHINGTON — Like boxing opponents, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and GOP President George Bush have shaken hands, gone to their corners and are poised to come out slugging.

By all accounts, the next eight months leading up to the Nov. 2 general election will be political pugilism, with both parties setting their sights on nothing short of a knockout.

“It’s too early to say who has the upper hand,” said Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the American Apparel & Footwear Association, bracing for a wild political ride during which the uneven effect of U.S. trade policies on American manufacturing jobs is expected to be a central topic of contention.

“It’s going to be a very closely contested election,” predicted Steve Pfister, senior vice president of government with the National Retail Federation. “The electorate is almost evenly divided, right down the middle.”

Kerry secured his position as Bush’s opponent when Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Kerry’s last serious challenger, withdrew his candidacy Wednesday. Edwards failed to score a victory in 10 state contests the day before and improve on his one-win record.

“I’ve decided to suspend my campaign for the President of the United States,” Edwards told supporters at a televised rally in Raleigh, N.C., throwing his support behind Kerry.

Edwards, who is widely viewed as a potential Kerry running mate with appeal to Southern conservative Democrats who often vote for the GOP, reprised his “two Americas” stump speech of poor versus wealthy Americans.

The son of a textile worker, Edwards said he could still imagine his father’s co-workers with “lint on their hair, grease on their faces. Men and women who represent the best in America….Where do they go now and will they have a President and an administration who understands their lives?”

Today, the Bush campaign plans to unleash a national TV ad campaign touting his presidency as one of skillfully and patriotically managing economic and global crises that weren’t of his making. At the same time and on behalf of Kerry, MoveOn.org, the Democratic activist organization, releases its latest TV spot, this time critical of Bush’s push to change federal rules deciding who’s entitled to overtime pay.The economy and war in Iraq will likely be the central themes voters will weigh in picking the next president, said NRF’s Pfister.

“The pocketbook issues are going to continue to be of paramount importance to voters,” Pfister said. “The economy seems to now be doing well, but business is kind of waiting for additional signs with respect to hiring and capital expenditures. The President will say, ‘Stick with me. I’ve put economic policies in place that will produce sustainable growth for the economy.’”

Likewise, Kerry attacks the President for pursuing tax cuts that largely benefit the wealthy and corporations, while exacerbating the federal deficit. Kerry, who has supported international trade agreements during his 19 years in the Senate, is critical of the Bush administration’s expansive trade-expanding agenda without holding foreign countries to tougher labor and environmental standards.

However, Bush argues that tax cuts prime the economy to create jobs. The President contends that strong enforcement of trade agreements is the means to ensure fair competition. Bush and running mate Vice President Dick Cheney consider expanding international trade and U.S. exports as key to bolstering the economy.

Kerry’s position on trade concerns the AAFA’s Burke, who is concerned the Central American Free Trade Agreement might stall in Congress, largely because of an apparent chilling effect the election-year debate on U.S. trade policies has had on Capitol Hill lawmakers.

“Kerry has been very antitrade during his quest for the nomination,” Burke said. “I don’t really believe he can be as protectionist throughout the campaign, despite the jobs issue.”

As for apparel union UNITE, the only national union to endorse Edwards, its candidate withdrawing from the race wasn’t unexpected and members will join the rest of organized labor to back Kerry. Chris Chafe, UNITE’s political director, said the union “will lead the charge” to push for Edwards as Kerry’s running mate.

Chafe said UNITE’s involvement in the Edwards campaign has strengthened the union’s presence in the Democratic race and will hopefully translate into continued influence in shaping the issues.

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