Democratic presidential challenger John F. Kerry made his way to two critical southern battleground states Friday, assuring laid-off workers in North Carolina that jobs are on the way and following President Bush through hurricane-ravaged South Florida.

In a free-flowing speech at a community college in Charlotte that covered such topics as jobs, guns and military might, Kerry pitched a populist message aimed at the state's independents and Republicans and those still on the fence. A day after he addressed attacks on his military record, Kerry said nothing on the subject.

Instead, he outlined his plan to create and retain U.S. jobs, repeatedly accusing the Bush administration of favoring the wealthy over the struggling working class. He went to the heart of North Carolina's job losses by promising to rein in the foreign outsourcing of manufacturing jobs.

"Does any taxpayer in North Carolina truly believe it makes sense for you to be actually paying for, rewarding and subsidizing a company that decides to take a job to Mexico or overseas?" he asked a town hall meeting at Piedmont Community College, before a large, friendly crowd that gave him at least half a dozen standing ovations. "One of the first things we are going to do is stop having any American subsidize the loss of their own jobs. We are going to reward companies that stay here and create jobs in the United States."

North Carolina has lost about 160,00 manufacturing jobs in the past four years, which Kerry blamed on the Bush administration's policies. Kerry is hoping the state's flagging economy, coupled with his choice of Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as a running mate, has made the Democratic ticket competitive. Recent polls show Kerry closing the gap with Bush in the state, which usually votes Republican in presidential elections.

Before the rally, Kerry held a smaller meeting with laid-off workers who attend the school's retraining program. Later, he highlighted the story of Peter Offnick, who told Kerry that he was laid off after 30 years when his plant moved to Mexico. Offnick, 60, said he went back to school because all he received from his company was three months' severance pay -- "no pension, no nothing."

"Thirty years invested in your company and they give you three months and a little certificate," Kerry said at the town hall rally.

The senator from Massachusetts said that his plan would invest in high-tech job training and in rebuilding the country's manufacturing base by offering employers a two-year break on payroll taxes so they could afford to hire people. He said he would also enforce and tighten trade agreements to give American workers a "level playing field."

With regard to guns, Kerry said that he wanted to head off likely charges later in the campaign by stating unequivocally that he is a hunter and supports Second Amendment rights -- an important issue in North Carolina.

After his rally, Kerry flew to Florida to tour the damage caused last week by Hurricane Charley. The most recent poll in the state -- released about a week ago -- showed Kerry slightly ahead in the state that decided the 2000 election in favor of Bush.

Bush flew to Florida on Sunday, two days after the hurricane, but Kerry said he stayed away so he would not get in the way of recovery efforts. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who accompanied Kerry, said: "I wanted it to be the least disruptive. But I wanted him to see the devastation. I think he is going to be president. I wanted him to see what the federal government will have to do here for years."

Kerry walked door to door through debris and fallen trees in several communities, surveying damage and asking how residents were coping.

In Cleveland, Kerry visited a mobile home complex. He met with Brenda Neighbors, whose trailer had been ripped apart and who had been wrapping the vestiges of her pottery in newspaper. Kerry told her that he was sorry and thanked her for allowing him to come through.

"He acted very concerned," she said. "They assured us the government was going to help us out."

Some residents said the visit could help Kerry in Florida this fall. "There will be a few, that's for sure," Barbara Timpf said of voters who may change their mind and support Kerry. "He's for the working person."