Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) began his appeal to new voters on Monday by touring college campuses and hitting on issues like tuition, national service and foreign policy.
Kerry told the students that change "starts with you" as he proposed tying college tuition assistance to national service, without specifying the relationship.
Evoking the name of John F. Kennedy, the last Catholic JFK from Massachusetts to hold the presidency, Kerry said that he was going to ask young people to give in service to their countries — either by mentoring, building homes or protecting the homeland.
"We cannot and we will not pass America's problems on to your generation. But the fact is, this election is not just about what we're going to do, it's about what you're going to do," Kerry said at an appearance at the University of New Hampshire (search).
"With college tuition rising higher this year than ever before, it's time to make four years of college affordable and available to every single young American," Kerry said. "We'll help you pay for school, and we'll help even more if you're willing to serve your country. And together, we'll make 2004 the last year that debt and dollar signs come before degrees and dreams for the future."
Kerry, who is also traveling this week to the University of Rhode Island, the City College of New York and the University of Pittsburgh, included the price of college tuition in his newly unveiled "Middle Class Misery Index," a measure of several statistics that he says proves that Americans are worse off today than during President Carter's term.
The index is not the same as the unofficial "misery index" or "Economic Discomfort Index" (search) first introduced during Carter's term to measure inflation and unemployment rates. Instead, it pulls together numbers for all 50 states from the Census Bureau (search), the College Board, the federal agency that runs the Medicaid and Medicare health programs and other government agencies, independent sources and advocacy groups.
The report uses median family incomes, college tuition, health costs, gasoline prices, personal bankruptcies, home ownership rates and private-sector job growth to argue that Americans' misery has dropped 13 points since President Bush moved into the White House.
The study says six of the seven factors have gotten worse between 2000 and 2003, with only homeownership rates increasing. Campaign officials said the study, which accounts for inflation, shows that tuition costs at public colleges and universities has increased 13 percent during that time. Private-college costs have grown by 5 percent over the same stretch.
Wages dropped 0.2 percent while health insurance premiums grew 11 percent and gasoline prices rose 15 percent. Drivers paid an additional $24 billion for gasoline this year, averaging $300 per family — effectively negating the positive effects of the Bush tax cuts, the study says.
"This is an index about how the real economy is affecting real working families," said Gene B. Sperling, a Kerry adviser who was a top economic aide to President Clinton.
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt dismissed the index as a political stunt.
"John Kerry has made a calculation that if he talks down the economy, it will benefit him politically," he said.
Schmidt also said the economy is growing "at its fastest rate in 20 years," and pointed to a Labor Department (search) report that some 308,000 new jobs were created last month. Nearly 2 million jobs have been lost during Bush's tenure.
Students Concerned With Iraq, Too
But Kerry wasn't only attacking the president's economic stewardship on Monday. He also addressed a foreign policy class, where he was asked by a student how he would "clean up the mess" in Iraq.
"My hope and prayer is that, since I don't get inaugurated until January 2005, that we don't have to wait until then to create the stability and save the lives and save the money that we want to save," Kerry told the class.
"If I were president today, right now today, I would be going very directly to the United Nations (search). I would summon the world to an effort that I think the world has a stake in, and I would be prepared to turn over to the U.N. the authority for the political transformation of Iraq and for the reconstruction of Iraq," he added.
Kerry said that he would keep the "military security component" under U.S. command, but would push for more burden- and risk-sharing on the ground.
Kerry said that if the students believed the Arab and European nations have an interest in making sure Iraq succeeded, then they should wonder why the administration is not making a greater effort to bring interested parties to the table.
The Massachusetts senator added that he thinks "it's a mistake to set an arbitrary deadline" of June 30 to transfer governmental power because Iraq is not yet stable enough. But he acknowledged that the deadline "has taken hold somewhat in Iraq" and has some "currency" among the Iraqi people.
Later at the university's bookstore, Kerry said that he did not want to politicize the actions of the Sept. 11 commission, which is studying intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He added that he wanted to digest all the information coming out of the panel's final report before commenting. That report is due in July.
Fox News' Catherine Loper, Sharon Kehnemui and The Associated Press contributed to this report.