John F. Kerry and John Edwards brought their feel-good trek toward the Democratic convention to two battleground states, with Kerry visiting historic Sioux City, Iowa, on Saturday and Edwards returning to Milwaukee, where Democrats believe his blue-collar message resonates.
Steps from the Missouri River, Kerry talked of the adventuresome spirit of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the need for ordinary Americans to join in a larger cause to "take back our Democracy."
"Politics has cheapened words," the presumptive Democratic nominee told several hundred Iowans gathered for the early afternoon event. "We're taking this trip with the hope that we can begin a new conversation in this country, that we can lift ourselves up, reach for the possible and look to the horizon once more."
As president and vice president, Kerry and Edwards promised to alter what they refer to as negative, divisive politics by enlisting the help of ordinary citizens to expand health care, increase education spending, lower taxes for the middle class and restore relations with the global community.
They painted an upbeat picture of the future and avoided direct attacks on President Bush, part of a new strategy of speaking more optimistically and discussing more precisely Kerry's record and values.
But this new strategy did not stop Teresa Heinz Kerry from reverting to the old script in Iowa, a state Democrat Al Gore won by only 4,000 votes four years ago.
The outspoken wife of the Massachusetts senator was highly critical of Bush, cracking a joke about how her husband reads and knows history, unlike "some other people." And in a comment apparently directed at the religious nature of Bush's reelection campaign, she said, "What we need is a moral nation, not a moralistic nation."
Meanwhile, the Bush-Cheney campaign attempted to undercut Kerry's claim to representing the nation's values.
"The last time Senator Kerry was here, he wanted us to think that he was espousing and actually believed in 'conservative values,' but the fact of the matter is that he has the most extreme liberal voting record, according to the National Journal," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said in a conference call set up by the Bush-Cheney campaign. "So obviously, I intend to spend my time in the next few months explaining to people that he does not share our conservative values."
In Milwaukee, Edwards addressed a rally in the heart of the African American community, invoking the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his own modest background. "One of the extraordinary things about Dr. King is that growing up the way he did, facing the discrimination, the segregation that he faced every day of his life -- he was here in Milwaukee, talking about hope and optimism and . . . what's possible. That's what Dr. King believed," the North Carolina senator said, speaking at a park named for King.
As is becoming usual when the Edwards family is together, Emma Claire, 6, and Jack, 4, stole the show, arriving onstage wearing huge yellow hats shaped like cheese wedges -- a common adornment of Green Bay Packer football fans.
Edwards's populist message has a strong appeal in Wisconsin, where he ran a close second to Kerry in the primary. Gore carried the state by fewer than 6,000 votes in 2000, and party leaders here believe the key this year is high turnout -- especially among minorities.
"I grew up in a family where my father worked in a mill. . . . The truth is I grew up like most Americans grow up, in a family that struggled and worked hard and tried to give their kids a better life. I have had such incredible opportunities," he told the crowd of 1,000 people. "At the core of this campaign is to make sure that those opportunities are available to everybody, no matter where you live, who your family is or the color of your skin."
This pre-convention tour is designed to create an upbeat aura around the Democratic ticket as the men head to Boston to accept their party's nomination, and to present Kerry in a more personal way.
"We intend to crisscross this country reminding people that what matters is not the narrow values that divide but the shared values that have always united every American: faith and family, strength and service, responsibility and opportunity for all," Kerry said in the weekly Democratic radio address on Saturday.
Kerry has determined that the biggest, and perhaps only, hurdle he must clear to win the election is selling himself to undecided voters on a more personal level, his aides said. Kerry has told aides that he believes a majority of Americans are ready to vote Bush out of office -- as long as they feel comfortable with the alternative.
Kerry's convention speech also is aimed at accomplishing this task.
The Democratic candidate has completed a rough draft of the speech, which he has read to his wife and a few advisers.
Aides said he will present a personal portrait of himself and attempt to show how his background will guide his governing principles.
Edwards, too, will depart from the traditional vice presidential role of pit bull in his acceptance speech. He intends to deliver a positive message of promise and hope -- not unlike versions of his stump speech during the primaries.
Teresa Heinz Kerry said her speech introducing her husband at the convention will run about 20 minutes with applause, 13 to 14 minutes of speaking time. She said it will strike familiar themes.
Kerry sent a letter to Sept. 11 commission Chairman Thomas H. Kean and Vice Chairman Lee H. Hamilton commending their work and calling for immediate action on several of the panel's recommendations to guard against future terrorist attacks. "I offer my full support for immediate action and will work with you to implement your recommendations," Kerry wrote.
VandeHei reported from Sioux City, Iowa.