-- Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry delivered a populist message to this long-suffering industrial region, visiting a picket line and telling blue-collar workers here Sunday that President Bush has been dishonest about the economy's health.
On a swing through the Mahoning Valley near Youngstown in eastern Ohio, the senator from Massachusetts told a crowd full of union workers that "I've got your back," and he portrayed Bush as disengaged from economic suffering. "This administration, every time it's had an opportunity to make a choice for you . . . they've made a choice that helps the powerful, they've made a choice to help the people who are the most helped already," he said.
The town-hall-style forum in a high school gymnasium, in which Kerry discussed a lack of health insurance, low wages and the outsourcing of jobs overseas, was part of an effort by his campaign to shift the national debate to economic issues in advance of Friday's debate.
In Ohio, the Democrat sought to tie together his foreign and domestic criticism of Bush by charging that Bush had been untruthful about both. A day after a television ad by the Kerry campaign accused Bush of "lying" -- a word Kerry disavowed in Thursday's debate -- Kerry repeatedly questioned Bush's credibility, saying Americans "really need to know that the president is being straight with them."
Kerry's emphasis on pocketbook issues was a calculation that the campaign could use the momentum gained from his strong debate performance to change the subject from terrorism, where Bush has broader support. In an appearance on "Fox News Sunday," Kerry strategist Tad Devine said that "the race has closed" and that the economy and health care "are the issues the American people want debated."
Bush was not on the campaign trail, but his staff kept the emphasis on his preferred subject: security issues. On Fox, White House communications director Dan Bartlett said that despite post-debate polls showing gains for Kerry, voters still trust Bush more than Kerry to fight terrorism. "That's what matters to the American people, and that's what's going to matter on November 2nd," he said.
In response to Kerry's accusations about Bush's disengagement on the economy, the Bush campaign said Kerry's proposals would do nothing to reverse the pattern of U.S. jobs moving overseas. "John Kerry's own advisers have said his proposals won't create jobs and won't stop outsourcing," Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said.
Kerry's argument, combining populist strains with doubts about Bush's credibility, had echoes of Al Gore and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), both onetime opponents of Bush. "Straight talk is exactly what I intend to give you today," Kerry said, borrowing the slogan of McCain's 2000 primary challenge to Bush. And Kerry's vow to "fight" for the people against "powerful" interests was a theme touted in the 2000 election by Gore, who promised to fight "for the people, not the powerful."
A key Kerry adviser, Bob Shrum, was an architect of that theme during Gore's campaign, but a Kerry spokesman said Shrum was not the author of Kerry's move toward populism.
A Columbus Dispatch poll, taken before the debate and published Sunday, found that Bush had a seven-point lead in GOP-leaning Ohio. Democrats hope the state's higher-than-average unemployment and its loss of manufacturing jobs will allow Kerry to prevail.
Kerry said Ohio has lost 237,000 jobs during Bush's watch, and he asserted that the middle class's share of taxes has risen. "The question is, does he really see and know what is going on in the lives of middle-class Americans -- people struggling to get into the middle class, people who are fighting for survival," he said.
That was the theme of Kerry's picket-line talk with members of the United Steel Workers union, who have been locked out of RMI Titanium near here for a year after rejecting company demands for concessions. He signed autographs and coaxed some out-of-work picketers to tell their stories to reporters.
"You go to bed at night wondering how you're going to make the electric bill payment, or the gas bill payment, or the rising cost of gasoline looking for a job," said Michael Mignogna, 55, who worked at the plant 24 years.
At the high school, Kerry appeared on stage with one of the RMI workers, who wore a T-shirt proclaiming "Locked Out." Kerry acknowledged his own wealth but professed a sense of noblesse oblige. "I know . . . as President Kennedy reminded us so much when we were young kids, that from those to whom much is given, much is expected."
At East Mount Zion Baptist Church, Kerry and Jesse L. Jackson met with black clergy before Kerry complained in a speech about efforts in Ohio and other competitive states to block voter registration by African Americans.
"In battleground states across the country, we're hearing stories about how people are making it harder to file a ballot," he said. "We're not going to allow 1 million African Americans to be disenfranchised." The Democratic National Committee on Tuesday plans to name a team of lawyers to work on voting rights cases.