PORTLAND, Ore., Aug. 13 -- President Bush and Democratic nominee John F. Kerry were again within virtual shouting distance of each other Friday, clashing on taxes and the Iraq war before highly emotional crowds that highlighted how intensely engaged voters are in this closely contested state.
A crowd that authorities estimated at close to 40,000 gathered along this city's Willamette River for an outdoor rally for Kerry. Throughout the day, the Democrat seized on a new congressional study indicating the middle-class tax burden has risen under Bush while the rich reaped the largest gains under his tax cuts.
President Bush shakes hands with supporters as he is introduced at a campaign rally at Southridge High School in Beaverton, Ore.
(Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- AP)
"It's morally wrong, and it's wrong from a policy point of view," Kerry said in Springfield, Ore. "Now, I'm not one of these politicians who believe that you need to go and be involved in one of these big redistributions. That's not what I am about. But I am about fairness."
In a question period that followed his remarks, Kerry took a shot at Vice President Cheney, who earlier in the week ridiculed Kerry's call for a "more sensitive war on terror." A man asked the Democrat about disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics in American prisons.
"How do you propose we change that figure to make this country, make this country, more -- I don't want to use the word 'sensitive,' because Bush has screwed that word up," he said.
"Don't for an instant be shy about using the word 'sensitive,' " Kerry responded. "I don't think it's particularly sensitive for a vice president who has secret meetings with polluters and writes the laws that take our things back. . . . So I'm going to stand up for what's right, and nobody's going to change what's right in my judgment."
Bush's crowd of a couple of thousand supporters jammed in a suburban high school was smaller but wildly enthusiastic. During a question-and-answer session, the audience roared approval as some questioners disparaged Kerry's Vietnam-era history -- one speaker said he had distorted his personal history; another said he got Purple Hearts for "self-inflicted scratches." Bush responded with a smile and nod but no comment.
The president defended his tax cuts, including for "the rich," saying that he wanted all taxpayers to have relief and arguing that Kerry's pledge to raise taxes on the rich would include many small-business owners who create jobs.
"Remember when you tax the rich you're taxing S-corps and sole proprietorships," Bush said, referring to small-business categories. "Why would you want to be taxing the job creators of America? It's bad economic policy to run up the taxes."
That defense of the entrepreneurial drive of the rich was followed a moment later with a more ambiguous comment about their motives. "A lot of the rich are able to get accountants so they're able to dodge," Bush said, adding that such manipulations of the tax code mean the middle class would bear the burden of taxes to pay for the new spending Kerry proposes.
Bush had to calm the ardor of the crowd at Southridge High School in Beaverton. One woman noted that Oregon has one of the nation's highest percentages of "unchurched" citizens and asked the president to "take a minute to pray for Oregon."
Bush, who had won loud applause earlier when noting his Christian faith, told the woman "I appreciate what you say" but then seemed to rebuke her statement. "People can choose church or not church, and they're equally American," he said, adding that it is important that "we jealously guard" the tradition of protecting religious freedom.
The crowd, seemingly surprised by Bush's refusal to endorse the woman's statement, responded with only a smattering of applause.
Bush played to local issues in Portland, announcing support for $15 million to deepen the Columbia River channel. The city's port is losing business, in part because it is not deep enough for some new ships.
Kerry's campaign events Friday were a study in contrasts as he began the day speaking to about 100 invited guests and neighbors at a suburban cul-de-sac in Springfield and ended it with a public address at the large rally in Portland.
As he has since arriving in this state Thursday night, Kerry focused during both events on undecided, moderate voters and painted the election as a choice between his economic plans and the president's. He stuck to the main tenets of his platform: expanding access and affordability of health care, rolling back taxes for wealthy Americans, and increasing funding for education and the environment.
Unlike Bush, Kerry made little mention of local issues, with the exception of a reference to an article he read Friday morning that said the state had about 200 failing schools. The Portland event, which included a performance by rock star Jon Bon Jovi, stood in stark contrast to the Bush's appearances here Friday, which have drawn criticism in the local media here for their exclusivity.
A cartoon in Friday's Oregonian newspaper depicted Kerry speaking next to a sign that read "Kerry campaign rally open to the public." The next frame had a stately-looking gate with a cursive W on the front and a sign above it that said "Bush Campaign Rally, A Gated Community."
The event brought to a close Kerry's nonstop, 22-state, post-convention tour across the country that saw the Massachusetts senator and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), cover more than 8,000 miles by land, air and water over about two weeks. He told the crowd in Portland he plans to go windsurfing Saturday in the Columbia River gorge before embarking on a three-day retreat at his wife's vacation home in Ketchum, Idaho.
In the controversy over Kerry and "sensitive," Edwards said Cheney had unfairly "picked one word out of a long discussion" on terrorism. Appearing in Flint, Mich., Edwards cited Kerry's Vietnam history and said, "He's talking about a man who spilled his blood for the United States of America."
Staff writer Vanessa Williams, with Edwards in Michigan, contributed to this report.