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PARMA, Ohio - As Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry closes in on a choice of a running mate - a selection that may be announced this week - Republican Vice President Dick Cheney demonstrated how useful they can be on the campaign trail, delivering a rousing speech to more than 1,000 supporters gathered at a Catholic church here yesterday morning.
Gently assuming the mantle of political pit bull, Mr. Cheney took several swipes at Mr. Kerry during what he jokingly told the crowd was "the good part of the speech," saying the Massachusetts senator's positions on important issues seems to "shift with the political winds."
He pointed to Mr. Kerry's vote in favor of authorizing the war against Saddam Hussein, followed by the senator's harsh criticism of the war during the Democratic primaries earlier this year.
Mr. Cheney then blasted Mr. Kerry for an apparent about-face on the question of funding for the war.
"Last fall, at the President's request, the Congress considered legislation that provided critical funding for our troops," Mr. Cheney said. "The legislation passed overwhelmingly, with a vote in the Senate of 87-12. Senator Kerry voted 'No.' He then gave one of those explanations we have come to expect from him. He said, quote, 'I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.' "
"Well, that certainly clears things up," Mr. Cheney said.
The Bush campaign has made wide use of that Kerry line this year, featuring a video clip of it in television commercials that have aired widely in Ohio's media markets. In an interview after the speech, Mr. Cheney said such Kerry flip-flops on important issues demonstrate the challenger is unfit to be president.
Mr. Cheney's return to northeastern Ohio took place a week after Mr. Kerry stumped for votes at a town hall meeting and large rally at a high school in Stark County. The Bush and Kerry campaigns have made an effort to quickly follow each other's visits to Ohio to keep the other from gaining an advantage in what is expected to be one of the most important states in the race.
The Cheney stop was the first of several as part of a two-day holiday campaign bus tour across northeast Ohio. He also stumped in Canton and Lisbon before capping the day with another rally in Wheeling, W. Va. Today, the vice president campaigns in Pennsylvania, meeting supporters in Pittsburgh and Altoona.
Mr. Kerry returns to the Cleveland area Wednesday, campaign spokesman Brendon Cull said.
Bob Bennett, chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, said yesterday that Parma is a key area in the battle for Ohio.
"It's on our list of 'Must Stops' for the campaign. That's where the Reagan Democrats are. We've done well with conservative Democrats there," he said. "We've been working it pretty hard."
"I think we'll get a lot of the Reagan Democrat vote. I don't think John Kerry has much to offer those folks," Mr. Cheney said in the interview. "There's no question the intensity is pretty high out there already. We have to operate under the assumption this is going to be a close election."
Parma Mayor Dean DePiero, a Democrat and former legislative leader in the General Assembly, predicted Mr. Cheney's message will not sell in this working-class town.
"What the vice president does not understand is that people in Parma and in Ohio are still suffering under the Bush administration economy," Mayor DePiero said. "There are not enough decent, well-paying jobs, and the cost of health care continues to rise. Costs for our children to go to school and to college are skyrocketing. Yet Vice President Cheney comes to Parma to tell us that everything is A-OK."
Lloyd Mahaffey, a Democratic Party fixture of northwest Ohio and influential director of the Ohio United Auto Workers, agreed.
"Despite what the vice president says about the economy in Ohio, it's clear to the working families here that the economy is not good enough,'' he said. "Jobs are the bottom line in this state."
In the interview, Mr. Cheney said Friday's jobs number, which indicated that only about half as many jobs as expected were created last month, shows the economy is continuing to improve. He said there was no White House disappointment over the number.
"We didn't take it as a negative at all," he said. "We'd always like to have more rather than less, but we think everything is headed in the right direction."
"You don't want to judge the overall state of the economy by any one number. The number is not bad. It's important to look at more than one month," Mr. Cheney said.
"The numbers always bounce around a bit from month to month. There is no sign out there that the economy is slowing down."
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