HENDERSON, Nev., Aug. 11 -- Seizing on signs of dissatisfaction among senior citizens with the Medicare law signed last year by President Bush, John F. Kerry told a mostly gray-haired crowd in Nevada's second-largest city Wednesday that as president he would remove the law's restrictions on importing cheaper drugs from Canada.
"We can do a better job of making prescription drugs affordable for all the seniors in this country," Kerry, who opposed the bill, told about 200 seniors gathered in the gymnasium of a recreation center. "I call on the president to get out of the way of Americans being able to import drugs from Canada at a lower price."
The Food and Drug Administration prohibits importing drugs, citing safety concerns. Bush advisers are counting on the $564 billion drug benefit program, which provides those who enroll with drug discounts, to improve the president's standing with elderly voters.
The Democratic nominee's appeal to senior citizens, who backed Al Gore over Bush by 51 percent to 47 percent in 2000, came on the day the 3 million-member Alliance for Retired Americans, a three-year-old group that broke off from AARP, announced it was endorsing Kerry. The Kerry campaign announced an effort to mobilize seniors across the country and register them to vote, and to hold a series of campaign events at retirement communities.
Kerry's audience in Henderson, a city of more than 175,000, booed and hissed as he rattled off a list of prescription drugs he said cost an average of more than 200 percent more in the United States than in Canada. He told the crowd that his prescription plan would reduce prices through a combination of importation, government-assisted buying in bulk and allowing generic alternatives to reach the market more quickly.
Kerry was joined by his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who said the United States does not do enough to encourage preventive care, treat mental health or research women's health needs. The crowd laughed -- as did her husband -- when she said women are driven by estrogen to "tend and mend," while men are driven by testosterone to "fight or flight."
"They go and watch a football game; the lady wants to talk," Heinz Kerry said. "If you look at these problems as just life, we can fix them. Somehow we've been lucky enough to survive it, but we haven't done a great job of defining it."
Critics have charged the new prescription drug law is not generous enough and contains too many concessions to drug companies. A study released Tuesday by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health showed that 9 percent of eligible Medicare participants have signed up for the benefit, while 47 percent viewed it unfavorably.
Renee Rampton of Las Vegas, a first-grade teacher who told Kerry during a question period that she is still working at age 69 because she cannot afford to retire, said afterward that when the Medicare bill was passed she tore up her AARP membership card, because the organization had backed the plan.
"The president failed all of us," said Jeanette Cohan, 79, of Las Vegas, who said that she did not enroll in the new benefit program because it would have reduced the cost of her three prescriptions by only 21 cents a month.
In response, the Bush campaign arranged a conference call Thursday afternoon with House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), who accused Kerry and other Democrats of using scare tactics to sway seniors' votes without regard to the increased costs Kerry's plan would impose. "If you promise people the moon and then it costs them nothing to get there, I don't know how important a poll is that says people want to go to the moon," he said, referring to the Kaiser poll.
Thomas also criticized Kerry for missing several votes on the Medicare bill, including final passage, while campaigning for the primaries. Kerry aides said the Massachusetts senator skipped the final vote because its passage was not in doubt.
With both parties courting what is sometimes referred to as the "gray lobby," Laura Katz Olson, a Lehigh University political science professor who specializes in senior issues, cautioned against assuming that senior citizens would base votes on any one issue. "In addition to health care and drugs, they tend to be antiwar and concerned with the economy," she said. "There's a diversity of views, and they don't just vote as a block."
Kerry nears the end of a mostly overland journey across the country that has included stops in a host of closely contested states, such as Nevada, which in 2000 narrowly awarded its four electoral votes to Bush, who is scheduled to campaign here Thursday.
In an exception to the choreographed two-day stop in the Las Vegas area, Kerry walked through the Bellagio casino Tuesday night, attracting a crowd snapping digital photos as he cheered on an aide at a $10-minimum blackjack table.
In the scorching heat, Kerry departed by bus for Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon, with a stop at what was said to be the world's tallest thermometer, in Baker, Calif. It read 114 degrees.