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Kerry Gets a Little Bit Country in Bid for Rural Vote

Times Staff Writer

When Sen. John F. Kerry clambered onto a stage erected next to the Sonnentag family’s red barn in this western corner of Wisconsin Friday evening, he stepped into a picture-ready scene.

Below him, more than 2,000 cheering people perched on hay bales waved a sea of red-white-and-blue signs that read, “Celebrating the Spirit of America.” The black-and-white cows corralled in a nearby pen uttered low bellows as the sun set over the sloping fields of knee-high corn.

When Kerry finished speaking, the sky behind him exploded in the shimmery flashes of fireworks as a local band strummed “This Land is Your Land.”

Kerry’s visit to this farm, along with an earlier stop in the small town of Cloquet, Minn., kicked off a three-day Midwestern bus tour aimed as much at showcasing the Democratic presidential candidate in pastoral settings as it was at addressing the concerns of rural America.

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If there were any mistaking the goal, the Massachusetts senator was followed all day by a film crew capturing the scenes for new television commercials.

Kerry is also hoping that his swing through Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa will help him reap political rewards in rural communities assumed to be bastions of support for President Bush.

Four years ago, rural voters chose Bush over Democrat Al Gore by a 22-percentage-point margin, according to polling on election day. With four months to go before this year’s election, Kerry is trying to woo small-town America -- and cut into that Bush margin.

His convoy of four buses is supposed to trundle through 546 miles of lush, green countryside this holiday weekend. Along the way, Kerry plans to visit farms, play a little baseball, march in a Fourth of July parade and watch fireworks along the Mississippi River. He’s even scheduled to visit two towns named Independence.

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“One of the best things that I’ve witnessed throughout this campaign is that you can hear the beat of patriotism and see the promise of our country leaping out at you every single day in communities like this all across our country,” he said in Cloquet, population 11,201.

During his stop there, thousands packed the small stretch of the town’s main thoroughfare, standing under yards of patriotic bunting to hear him.

Bernie and Kathy Schumacher, who drove about an hour from Grand Rapids, Minn., to attend the Cloquet rally, said they welcomed Kerry’s focus on rural residents.

“I like how he’s really aiming for middle America,” said Kathy Schumacher, a third-grade teacher. She added that in her view, Bush “doesn’t consider lower-class people to be part of his world.”

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But to make significant inroads among small-town residents, Kerry must find a way to neutralize concerns about his liberal record on social issues such as abortion, gun control and gay rights. The GOP’s conservative positions on these topics have moved many in rural America to align with the Republicans -- and in 2000, to vote for Bush.

“If Kerry were to switch and take an ‘anti’ position on abortion, he’d get a 10- to 20-point swing in his direction,” said Dan Tarr, who runs a backhoe excavation company in Cloquet. He said he planned to vote for Kerry, but noted that the rest of his family supported Bush.

In Bloomer, neighbors of the Sonnentag family erected several large Bush signs in pastures facing Kerry’s rally site.

Kerry dismissed suggestions that he is out of touch with rural Americans.

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“I actually represent the conservative values that they feel,” he told a television interviewer in Minnesota, citing his pledge to balance the federal budget and strengthen the country’s standing internationally.

Later, Kerry told another TV interviewer that he was “right in line with Minnesota values. I’m a hunter and I’m a fisherman, from the time I was a kid.”

Mostly, however, the senator is trying to appeal to small-town residents by emphasizing what he says are Bush’s weak spots: the economy and Iraq.

In Cloquet, he dismissed the latest Labor Department report that the economy grew by 112,000 jobs in June, calling the increase “very weak.”

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Pressing his argument that many of the new jobs were not as lucrative as those that have been lost during Bush’s term, Kerry said, “Don’t tell the people getting those second-rate jobs, don’t tell the people working two or three jobs at a time, that we can’t do better,” he said.

Minutes later, Kerry recited the names of three soldiers from Cloquet who died in Iraq this year. “The war in Iraq and Afghanistan has hit small-town America particularly hard,” he said.

Despite his 19 years in the Senate, Kerry did his best to distance himself from Washington, joking that in the nation’s capitol, unwinding “is just taking off your jacket.” And he needled his press corps, saying he had to explain to the reporters traveling with him that not every town had a Starbucks.

He recalled his work at his aunt and uncle’s dairy farm as a young boy, telling supporters in Bloomer: “I know what hard work it is. I know the kind of people that live out here. I know what your hopes are.”

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But Kerry, who attended private boarding schools in Switzerland and New England and whose wife controls a fortune that may total at least $1 billion, could not completely shuck off his patrician roots.

As he waxed nostalgic during the flight to Minnesota on his campaign plane about his family’s Fourth of July celebrations, a reporter asked where Kerry usually had his cookouts and watched fireworks.

“It depends; usually by the water,” Kerry said. Occasionally, he said, in the Cayman Islands.


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