Thursday, August 26, 2004

ANOKA, Minn. (AP) — Sen. John Kerry challenged President Bush yesterday to weekly debates from now until Nov. 2 on campaign issues such as education, health care and national security.

“America deserves a discussion like we’re having here today, which I’m prepared to have with this president every single week from now until the election,” the Democratic presidential candidate said.

Mr. Kerry issued the challenge while speaking about health care at Anoka Hennepin Technical College, fielding questions from a group of more than 200 people, some of them self-described undecided voters.

The Kerry campaign picked Anoka County for the session because of its known political independence, drawing the audience from counties surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul. Anoka County voted for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush for president, as well as independent Jesse Ventura for governor, and tends to be a bellwether for statewide candidates.

The Bush-Cheney campaign rebuffed the debate challenge.

“There will be a time for debates after the convention, and during the next few weeks, John Kerry should take the time to finish the debates with himself,” said Bush-Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt.

“This election presents a clear choice to the American people between a president who is moving America forward and a senator who has taken every side of almost every issue.”

The Commission on Presidential Debates has scheduled three presidential debates to be held on college campuses in the battleground states of Florida, Missouri and Arizona in late September and October.

Mr. Kerry used the health care forum to highlight figures released by the Census Bureau that showed the ranks of the poor and uninsured grew last year, the third straight annual increase in both categories.

“Today confirms the failure of President Bush’s policies for all Americans. While George Bush tries to convince America’s families that we’re turning the corner, slogans and empty rhetoric can’t hide the real story,” said the senator from Massachusetts.

Mr. Kerry also defended himself from Republican charges that he wavers in his convictions on major issues.

“It’s standard Republican playbook,” Mr. Kerry said in response to a voter’s question. “They just say it, and if you spend enough money and say it enough, people like you are going to ask the question.”

Mr. Kerry said Mr. Bush has been the one flip-flopping in the past four years — standing against the Homeland Security Department, then embracing it; fighting against the September 11 commission, then endorsing it; promising to fund his new education law, then failing to do so.

After his response received a standing ovation, Mr. Kerry said, “That’s why it would be great to be talking about this every week.”

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