NEW ORLEANS, May 8 -- Sen. John F. Kerry implored college graduates Saturday to put aside their cynicism and turn to careers in public service, so that they might help rehabilitate the United States' troubled image overseas.
Kerry did not mention President Bush by name, but the Democratic challenger's commencement message was clear to graduates of Southern University at New Orleans, historically an African American school.
"Families working longer and longer for less, middle-class parents sometimes working two or three jobs just to make ends meet," Kerry told the 675 graduates, echoing lines from his stump speech. "Health care costs up by 49 percent in the last three years, college tuition rising by as much 28 percent."
He referred to the volunteer Peace Corps as the "most powerful symbol of nonmilitary service" and bemoaned its low numbers today.
"If there was ever a time when everyday people in the most deprived countries, cities and villages of the world need to see idealistic Americans working to help them, it is today when we are engaged in a struggle to win the hearts and minds of people all across this planet," he said.
This was Kerry's third visit to Louisiana since March 5 -- a signal that the campaign believes it has a shot in this conservative state that Bush won in 2000. In announcing its $25 million advertising buy last week in the battleground states, the campaign said it added Louisiana and Colorado to the list. It plans to spend $1 million for ads here.
"We're getting good feedback," Kerry told reporters Friday night, as he flew into Baton Rouge. "Why not? I think we can win."
The most recent statewide poll shows Bush ahead by 14 points, but the Kerry campaign believes the state's economic woes and loss of 21,000 jobs could open the door for the Massachusetts Democrat. Bill Clinton won the state in 1992 and 1996, and in the past two years, Democrat Kathleen Blanco was elected governor and Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu won a tough reelection.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 2 to 1, but many cross over to vote Republican. Party leaders are hoping an African American Senate candidate will bring to the polls blacks who will support Kerry. On Saturday, Kerry met with Democrats at the home of Rep. William Jefferson, the first African American House member elected in Louisiana since Reconstruction.
In addition, campaign officials believe Kerry, who is Roman Catholic, could be a good cultural fit for the state because of its strong French Catholic heritage. "It may be just about the only state in the union where speaking French is an asset," joked one campaign aide, referring to a Bush administration official's remark that Kerry looked French. Still, strategists from both parties stress that Kerry may be too liberal for Louisiana Democrats.
Kerry used the commencement address to again denounce the reported abuse of Iraqi detainees at the hands of U.S. soldiers in Baghdad. The abuse, he said, does "disservice to the courageous efforts of all those who serve in the military. Those abuses have done enormous damage to our country. They've hurt us in our objectives in Iraq, and empowered those who find fault with America."
Kerry encouraged the students to work in places where they can make a difference, "from the Middle East to African nations ravaged by AIDS."
"So I ask you to reject the cynicism that says you can't make a difference," he said. "There is work for all to do, a place for all to serve, and no room on the sidelines."
Kerry may have made his biggest impact before he addressed the students. As he was leaving his hotel before the speech, Kerry spotted a wedding party across the street and made a beeline for it.
The mother of the bride, Patricia Grumback, could not contain her glee when Kerry kissed her cheek. Cameras snapped as he then stepped onto the white buggy and kissed the startled bride, Tracy, and made small talk with her husband, Duane Olivera, a Navy officer in his formal whites. Olivera said he has been in the Navy 15 years and is stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. "God bless you," Kerry told the officer. "Thank you for your service."