AUSTINTOWN, Ohio - Confident and talkative, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry fielded a wide variety of questions on domestic policy during a town hall-style meeting with about 1,000 people near Youngstown, pledging to revamp the nation's health care insurance system and to make college more affordable.
For more than an hour, Mr. Kerry wandered the aisles of the local high school gym like a television talk show host, transforming queries into campaign pronouncements.
It was the type of event the candidate said he wishes he could have more often, and one that served as a rehearsal for the town-hall style debate in which he and President Bush will hold Friday.
"What we need more than anything in America is a national conversation,'' he said, "not these attack ads'' on television broadcasts across battleground states.
Telling locals that with just a month before the election it was time for some "straight talk,'' he said he is better equipped to help Ohioans because he better understands their plight.
"You've lost 237,000 jobs in the state of Ohio'' since Mr. Bush was elected, he said. "The President has been here many times - I think he was here yesterday. But does he really see what's going on?
"Fundamental fairness is being taken from the playing field in our great country. And nothing shows you that more than the unfairness of what's happened in terms of the tax structure - who pays, and who bears the burden.''
Senator Kerry decried "a 50 percent increase in the cost of health care in America, a 31 percent increase in the cost of gasoline in America, 35 percent increase in tuitions in America, the cost of 17 percent increase in Medicare payments in America, prescription drugs have gone up. Everything has gone up in America, except the wages of Americans under this administration, and I'm gonna change that.''
To bolster Mr. Kerry's point, supporter Sophia Taylor Richards, a single mother who was laid off in March from her job as a telemarketer, told the crowd of her troubles, and of her fear she may have to move from the Mahoning Valley if she can't find solid work.
"I know that I can't survive in the valley if things don't change. I think Senator John Kerry would be a good change,'' she said.
Mr. Kerry said he would improve the political tone in Washington, if elected, reaching across party lines to build friendships, as was the case decades ago "when people had friendships across the aisle and they talked to each other. They didn't lock people out of meetings. They didn't lock people out and say 'Take it or leave it.' They compromised. It worked, because what came first was not ideology or party, what came first was America. That's what I intend to restore to the thinking of Washington D.C.''
If elected, Mr. Kerry, a 20-year senator from Massachusetts, would likely have to work with two houses of Congress controlled by Republicans.
Terrorism and the Iraq war were barely mentioned.
Youngstown Mayor George M. McKelvey, a Democrat who supports the re-election of President Bush, said voters cannot trust Mr. Kerry to keep the nation safe, and that the election will turn mainly on voters' views on national security and the war on terror.
"Ohio voters understand that defending America is of the utmost importance, and Ohio voters aren't going to trust a candidate who says America has to pass a 'global test' before taking action. Giving other countries veto power over our self-defense would cause our nation to drift toward tragedy. Ohioans want a President who takes action, not an international poll. President Bush realizes that our national security decisions must be made in the Oval Office, not foreign capitals.''
Mr. Bush held similar campaign events in northeast Ohio Saturday.
The Kerry campaign swing through Democratic Party bastions in northeast Ohio included an appearance at a African-American church on Cleveland's east side last night. Joined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who pledged to work hard for the next month to increase minority turnout at the polls, Mr. Kerry invoked the memory of the close vote four years ago. He warned the churchgoers to demand their rights.
"Every vote will count, and every vote will be counted,'' he told them.
Mr. Jackson warned that any less than their hardest work "and we face the tragedy of woulda, coulda, shoulda.''
Contact Fritz Wenzel at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6134.41.0975 -80.76362