Reaching out to rural voters who overwhelmingly backed George W. Bush four years ago, John F. Kerry kicked off a holiday weekend bus tour through three midwestern states Friday by asking residents to help "bring an end to the Bush administration and march forward."
Kerry lashed out at Republicans who have accused him of offering unfairly grim assessments of the economy, seizing on Friday's announcement from the Labor Department that the economy had added 112,000 jobs in June, fewer than predicted.
"They say this is the best we can do," Kerry said, repeating a phrase he uses frequently. "Don't tell us that losing 13,000 dairy farms in Minnesota is the best that we can do. We have the best family farms in America, but we're denying those family farms the chance to be the best," he continued, in a speech that promised expanded health care coverage and improved public education.
After flying to nearby Duluth, Kerry boarded a coach emblazoned with his name and the slogan "Celebrating the Spirit of America" to start the weekend tour.
His 22-vehicle convoy rumbled past pine groves, small lakes and a retail lot filled with prefabricated houses to this mill town in the northeast corner of the state.
In Cloquet, population just over 11,000 -- which is celebrating its centennial, and the rare visit of a presidential candidate and July 4 -- Kerry was greeted by thousands of supporters who packed the town square in front of the red-brick Chief movie theater on a street called Broadway.
"Back in Washington, people's idea of unwinding is just taking off their jacket," said Kerry, who was wearing his customary blue blazer. "Here, you get a chance to talk to folks. You get a chance to listen to what's really happening in America." At that he removed his jacket.
Police stopped traffic at every intersection along the 30-mile route, and highway overpasses were draped with banners welcoming Kerry.
"An event like this only comes once in a lifetime," said Connie Drive, 32, whose 2-year-old daughter, Isabelle, waved an American flag as she sat on her mother's shoulders.
The candidate tailored his standard criticism of Bush's handling of the war in Iraq to his audience, listing the names of three local soldiers who had been killed in recent months, including one from Cloquet.
"The war has hit us hard," said Gale Panger, 71, a retired barber. He said he had lived in Cloquet all his life and could not remember another presidential candidate coming any closer than Duluth.
Recent polls have shown Bush leading Kerry among rural voters, though that gap is closing in some polls.
Kerry's aides released a report Friday accusing Bush of "leaving rural America behind" and citing statistics that show 24 percent of rural Americans lack health insurance.
In response the Bush campaign released its list of 10 reasons rural voters should not back Kerry, including his F rating from the National Rifle Association. Bush's team also distributed statements critical of Kerry from prominent Minnesota Republicans, including Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who said, "The more than 19,000 jobs created in Minnesota during April and May alone means that President Bush's pro-growth policies are working."
Pressed about reports that his selection process for a running mate could wind up as early as next week, Kerry did nothing to tip his hand. Told that a Boston Globe reporter with a five o'clock shadow planned not to shave until Kerry picked a running mate, the candidate joked, "How does a three-week beard look on you?"
But Kerry told a local television interviewer he would announce his selection first to the 1 million supporters who have registered on his Web site, JohnKerry.com.
Kerry, who was joined by daughters Vanessa and Alexandra, planned a campaign stop Friday night at a farm in Wisconsin's Chippewa County, before continuing to Iowa over the weekend for a host of events, including fireworks on the Mississippi River.
"We're going to honor the values that built our country and strengthened our communities," Kerry said here.
Betsy Diver, a psychology professor at nearby Lake Superior College, said she supports the senator "100 percent" but wanted more details about his proposals. "It was a lot of rhetoric, but I'd have liked to hear a bit more about what he plans to do and how he'll pay for it," she said.