Kerry, Bush Sharpen Messages in Midwest

MILWAUKEE — The presidential campaign swung through the Midwest today, with Sen. John F. Kerry accusing his rival of turning his back on working Americans while President Bush sharpened their differences over terrorism and domestic agendas.

In a speech before a lively, partisan audience at Milwaukee Area Technical College, the Democratic presidential candidate pressed his case that the Bush administration has ignored the rising costs of healthcare, child care and college education that he said are squeezing middle class families.

"Right now, we have an economy where for too many people the dream is harder and harder to reach," Kerry said. "People play by the rules. They do everything that they're supposed to do. But every time you think you're going to get ahead, it just kind of slips away as prices go up.

"The problem is, this president either just doesn't understand what's happened to our economy and to the average family in America, or he understands and he just doesn't care," Kerry added, as more than 500 people in a campus auditorium whooped and cheered.

The Bush campaign, speaking to several thousand supporters in a half-empty sports stadium in Cedar Rapids for which aides had no ready explanation, countered by arguing that Kerry's policies would hurt the economy, citing his past support for tax increases. Bush tried to play off many of the comments that Kerry had made during their three debates.

Bush recalled that Kerry had chided him during Wednesday's debate for talking about education after being asked a question about jobs. "No," Bush said. "Good jobs start with good education...That's how we create jobs in America."

Then he accused Kerry of compiling "a history of doing almost nothing" on education. In his weekly Saturday radio address, Bush also will highlight his differences with Kerry, as he did today in Iowa and Wisconsin.

Those two states, out of as many as 10 others, are expected to largely determine the election.

"Keep making the phone calls, keep puttin' up the signs, and we'll win," Bush told his backers.

Kerry has promised not to raise taxes on the middle class, but to rescind the tax cuts that Bush gave Americans earning more than $200,000 a year.

Kerry's 32-minute speech in Milwaukee came as part of his campaign's final effort to frame Bush's presidency as one marked by the wrong choices and bad judgment. Over the next week, advisors said the Massachusetts senator plans on giving a series of "closing arguments" about job losses, healthcare and other matters along the same theme, while maintaining that he represents a "fresh start" for the country.

Senior advisor Mike McCurry said the coming week represents an opportunity to persuade undecided voters "newly awakened" by the presidential debates that Kerry would provide better leadership than the incumbent.

"We have got to press as hard as we can in this coming week to define that choice," he told reporters aboard the campaign plane this morning.

In the vice presidential race, Sen. John Edwards also campaigned in Iowa while Vice President Dick Cheney moved through the southwest corner of Michigan, a state that his campaign insists remains up for grabs, the most recent polls notwithstanding.

"This is crunch time. We're only going to be in places that we think matter," Cheney's campaign press secretary, Ann Womack, said.

Cheney, accompanied by his wife, Lynne, traveled from Berrian Springs near the Indiana border, then to Kalamazoo, seeking to stir up support among party faithful and those leaning toward supporting Bush to overcome strong Democratic support in Detroit and other urban areas.

Four years ago, Bush lost the state 51% to 46%, but Cheney was working a swath that has long been troublesome for Democrats: Bush won in Berrien County with nearly 56% of the vote and in Kent County, Cheney's final scheduled stop of the day, with nearly 60%. In Kalamazoo County, the president lost by 553 votes, a one percentage point margin.

A statewide Michigan poll completed Wednesday for the South Bend, Ind. Tribune and WSBT-TV, with a sampling error of 4%, showed likely voters supporting Kerry by a 48% to 43% margin over Bush. Kerry had a nearly identical 48% to 42% lead in another poll taken at the end of September.

During a question-and-answer session at Hopper's restaurant in Berrien Springs, Cheney was asked about the strength of the Social Security system. He said it was sound for current retirees and those approaching retirement, but that for younger workers, the administration has prescribed a system where some of their payroll taxes would go into private investments.

"John Kerry's approach is basically to put his head in the sand and not deal with that," Cheney said.

Kerry's message that he represents a "fresh start" is a shift from his campaign's reluctance earlier in the year to cast the Democrat as a candidate of change, for fear it would be unsettling to swing voters. But in recent weeks, his advisors have embraced that message as they try to strike an optimistic tone.

"This has to be about the future for America and how America will change over the next four years," McCurry said. "We're about a change of direction, a new direction, a fresh start for America and doing things differently. That is absolutely fundamental. If there's a campaign that is dwelling on the negative and relying on the negative, it's the campaign on the other side."

Gold reported with the Kerry campaign, Gerstenzang with Cheney and Chen with Bush.