President Bush and Sen. John Kerry sparred over tax cuts and the economy Wednesday, each trying to show voters that they're the best man to put — or keep — in the White House to keep the country out of financial doldrums.
The presidential rivals zeroed in on the economy because polls continue to show it's the most important issue for voters.
The most recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll from March 3-4 showed that economy-related issues continue to be the most common conversation topic people are having with friends and neighbors.
Bush: We Know How to Meet Economy's Challenges
Bush took his economic message to Ohio, a historic battleground state that he has visited 15 times as president. Besides the economy, he also defended his tough-on-terror record and justified U.S. actions in Iraq.
"Our economy has challenges, and we know how to meet them," Bush said in a speech to the Women's Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century Forum (search) in Cleveland.
Bush repeatedly said he understood anxiety felt by Americans who are swept up in a changing economy.
But "some politicians in Washington see this new challenge and yet they want to respond in old ways," he said.
"Their agenda is to increase federal taxes, to build a wall around this country, and to isolate America from the rest of the world," Bush said. "That old policy of tax and spend is the enemy of job creation; the old policy of economic isolationism is a recipe for economic disaster. Americans have moved beyond that tired, defeatist mind-set, and we're not going back. There's a better way."
Bush never mentioned Kerry — the Massachusetts senator and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee — by name.
The president pointed to bright spots in the economy: rising home ownership and unemployment rates that have ticked down from 5.9 percent in November to 5.6 percent last month.
"Through the hard work of our people, the innovation of our businesses and the good policies now in place, we have put a recession behind us," Bush said. "This economy has challenges, and we know how to meet them."
But Bush's tax cuts and global trade initiative — part of his six-point economic recovery plan — will be a tough sell in Ohio, a state that has seen more than 160,000 jobs lost during Bush's White House term, a majority of them in the hard-hit manufacturing sector.
Unemployment is stuck at 6.2 percent in the Buckeye State; the national unemployment rate for February was 5.6 percent.
In a letter sent to the White House Tuesday night, Ohio Democrats zeroed in on this topic and asked the president to enact job protection legislation that would give corporations tax benefits based on their American production.
Kerry Calls for Return to Clinton Policies
Kerry, meanwhile, asked Americans earning more than $200,000 a year to pay the taxes they paid under President Clinton and pledged to retain the Bush tax cuts for the middle class and even add to them.
"Under George Bush's policies, middle-class families are paying more. America's middle class can't afford a tax increase," Kerry told labor leaders. He accused the president of draining thousands of dollars from working families and practicing "the politics of blame."
"George Bush is running on the same old Republican tactics of fear — and they're already getting tired," he said. "It's clear that this president will fight like hell to keep his own job, but he won't lift a finger to help Americans keep theirs."
The four-term senator also said he will propose new middle-class tax credits to pay for health care and college tuition. He agrees with Bush on extending some tax cuts past next year.
Republicans charge that the combined cost of Kerry's proposed social spending on top of the taxes he plans to raise will total a whopping $900 billion over 10 years.
Not to take the criticism lying down, Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry "has voted for higher taxes 350 times and his numbers for new spending don't add up. His campaign trail promises mean that he is going to raise taxes by at least $900 billion. It is a tax increase for every American."
Schmidt added, "John Kerry's rhetoric that he is only going to raise taxes on the rich is not credible, is not believable, and it doesn't add up."
Kerry earlier took some heat after he was heard off camera telling supporters urging him to beat Bush: "Let me tell you, we've just begun to fight ... We're going to keep pounding. These guys are the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen. It's scary."
Kerry spokesman David Wade said the senator was referring to Republican critics in general. "The Republicans have launched the most personal, crooked, deceitful attacks over the last four years," Wade said. "He's a Democrat who fights back."
The Bush-Cheney campaign answered back, saying, "At every turn, John Kerry has claimed to be the victim of an imaginary smear machine. John Kerry has run a relentlessly negative campaign from the very beginning and this comment is completely consistent with that."
Kerry Meets With Dean, Edwards
Kerry also courted the labor vote and supporters of former rival Howard Dean (search), one day after easily winning four Southern primaries that brought him within a breath of the Democratic presidential nomination.
The former Vermont governor is prepared to endorse the Massachusetts senator, campaign for him and ask his own contributors to donate to Kerry's campaign, said officials familiar with the meeting.
Kerry greeted Dean as he arrived at campaign headquarters, and the two joined hands and raised them high for cameras. An official endorsement is expected next week.
Anticipating their meeting, the Bush campaign issued "Howard Dean's Greatest Hits on John Kerry," a 10-item recounting of Dean criticism of his rival for the nomination. The quotes from news stories include Dean's statement in January that "you're not going to change America by nominating somebody who is a Washington insider whose biggest long suit is talk."
Kerry will also meet this week with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search), his last remaining major rival in the presidential race until he dropped out of the running last week.
Exit polls of voters in the four Southern primaries of Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas found that more than half think Edwards would be a popular choice in the region for Kerry's running mate.
Kerry met Wednesday with workers at a Chicago contracting business before making a satellite address to top leaders of the AFL-CIO (search), who are meeting this week in Bal Harbour, Fla. He also toured a mechanical contracting plant business.
Fox News' Carl Cameron, James Rosen, Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.