Thursday, June 17, 2004

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The battle for middle-class voters in November’s presidential election reached full pitch yesterday as Sen. John Kerry campaigned here, promising universal health coverage and an expansion of after-school day care.

“The wealthiest people in America are getting a huge, walk-away-with-the-store tax break,” said Mr. Kerry, who is worth millions. “But a whole bunch of kids who need to have after-school adult input aren’t getting it.”

The Massachusetts Democrat went on to tell a group of parents at a day care facility, “My choice is to make certain that every child in America has an opportunity to be able to be nurtured, to be loved, to be safe, to be cared for and to be able to go through school.”

Perhaps no state will be more bitterly contested in this year’s presidential election than Ohio, targeted by both campaigns as among the most significant bellwethers. The state also has backed the winner in every presidential election since 1964.

Mr. Kerry has been organizing in the state since he effectively wrapped up the Democratic nomination earlier this year, capping his team this week by naming Democratic operative J.B. Poersch as state director. President Bush’s campaign has been organizing in Ohio for more than a year.

The intense political rivalry between otherwise neighborly households played out dramatically here Tuesday evening at a lush park with tall trees and verdant playing fields.

Mr. Kerry was telling a crowd of loyal supporters how the middle class built America and how the tax code should show proper appreciation for this when the faint tunes of an old familiar song first could be heard.

Initially, only a few people turned around. But as the sound grew louder, many in the crowd began shifting, turning around and asking one another about the music.

Just across the street, a couple of Republicans had wheeled massive stage speakers out into their tidy front lawn and blasted toward Mr. Kerry the theme song to the 1960s family TV show “Flipper,” presumably a criticism of Mr. Kerry’s taking more than one side of issues.

“They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning / No one, you see, is smarter than he,” screamed the music set to its happy jingle.

Campaign workers fumbled for their phones to order the bus hauling reporters to back up and block the sound. Columbus police were dispatched to see whether an agreeable solution could be reached.

During the imbroglio, Mr. Kerry continued speaking without pause, accusing Mr. Bush’s economic policies of hurting the middle class and making a TV reference of his own.

“If that’s compassionate conservatism, ladies and gentlemen,” he said at one point, “then Dick Cheney is Mr. Rogers.”

Eventually, the Republicans — one wearing a straw cowboy hat and another wearing a green John Deere ball cap — agreed to turn the music down, but by then, their point had been made.

This week’s events were part of a two-week tour by Mr. Kerry to highlight what he sees as financially desperate conditions facing the middle class, along with his solutions for fixing them.

Mr. Kerry, whose campaign declined to provide its definition of “middle class,” said the current economic recovery is the “worst since the Great Depression” and promised to roll back Mr. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to pay for, among other things, “quality after-school programs” for 3.5 million children.

Responding to Mr. Kerry’s charges, the Bush campaign released two policy memos yesterday laying out the president’s plans for easing the burdens of rising health care and education costs on the middle class.

The campaign accused Mr. Kerry of touting only the bad news, while ignoring the good news about the economy.

Specifically, the Bush campaign said Mr. Kerry’s health care policy would shift the problem of higher medical costs to future generations without fixing the root of the problem. Mr. Bush proposes reforming the court system to eliminate frivolous lawsuits, including those accusing medical malpractice.

In a speech yesterday morning, Mr. Kerry chastised Congress for having the finest health care coverage available while some Americans go without.

Senators and congressmen “give themselves great health care, and they send you the bill,” the Massachusetts senator said. “I think it’s time we understood that every family’s health care in America is as important as any politician’s in Washington, D.C.”

The Bush memo on health care costs said, “Kerry is just discovering a trend that he has ignored for the 20 years he has been in the Senate.”

Talking about education yesterday, Mr. Kerry also told the largely black crowd at the day care center that there are more blacks in prison than in college.

“That’s unacceptable,” he said. “But it’s not their fault.”

Rather than the inmates, the former Boston prosecutor blamed poverty, poor schools, a dearth of after-school programs and “all of us as adults not doing what we need to do.”

Mr. Kerry’s campaign also announced yesterday that it had raised $100 million since the nomination effectively was wrapped up on Super Tuesday in March.

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