PHILADELPHIA – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) said Thursday that President Bush is underfunding a program that could steer more at-risk youth into college, while a Kerry administration could boost college enrollment by 1.5 million students in five years.
Kerry met with four students in the GEAR UP (search) program, which sponsors tutoring and mentoring, college visits and workshops that help guide low-income students into college.
"It is misleading to be saying to Americans we are going to leave no child behind and then consciously make choices to cut programs like this or to starve them so that they can't do the full job," Kerry said. "This is America's priority right here. It's the top priority, and we deserve a president who understands that and who is prepared to put the money behind it."
The Kerry campaign said the federal government spends $298 million on GEAR UP, and Bush proposed a $68 million cut in the 2002 budget and an $8 million cut in the 2004 budget. Kerry would like to increase spending on the program by $200 million, paid with money raised from rolling back Bush's tax cuts for people earning more than $200,000 a year.
Kerry said the expansion of GEAR-UP, simplified student aid applications and tuition tax credits would boost enrollment by 1.5 million students by 2009.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, responding to Kerry in a statement distributed by Bush's campaign, said the president has presided over record college enrollments. He suggested Kerry's criticism of Bush's education record are an election-year ploy.
"America's students deserve better than political attacks," Specter said.
Kerry's trip to the swing state of Pennsylvania came between two days of meetings in Washington. He was flying back to the capital to vote against the president's budget.
In an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, Kerry said he would consider a judicial candidate who disagrees with his support of abortion rights as long as it doesn't lead to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade (search), the landmark 1973 ruling that made abortion legal.
Hours later, as fellow Democrats and abortion-rights supporters sought clarification, Kerry issued a statement pledging not to appoint anyone to the Supreme Court who would undo abortion rights. He left open the possibility of appointing anti-abortion judges to lower courts.
Leaders of the abortion-rights movement said they will continue to support Kerry over President Bush, who supports abortion only in cases of rape or incest or when a woman's life is endangered.
"There's a huge difference between Bush and Kerry on choice and this is not going to undermine the pages-long documentation that Kerry is pro-choice," said Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of NARAL Pro-Choice America (search).
Gloria Feldt, president of the Planned Parenthood (search) Action Fund, which has endorsed Kerry, said, "I'd like to hear him use language that is stronger."
In an hourlong interview with the AP, Kerry said he has voted in favor of "any number of judges who are pro-life or pro-something else that I may not agree with," some of whom were nominated by Republican presidents.
"Do they have to agree with me on everything? No," Kerry said. Asked if they must agree with his abortion-rights views, he quickly added, "I will not appoint somebody with a 5-4 court who's about to undo Roe v. Wade. I've said that before."
"But that doesn't mean that if that's not the balance of the court I wouldn't be prepared ultimately to appoint somebody to some court who has a different point of view. I've already voted for people like that. I voted for Judge Scalia."
Aides said later that "some court" was not a reference to the Supreme Court, only lower federal benches. In his clarifying statement, Kerry said, "I will not appoint anyone to the Supreme Court who will undo that right" to an abortion.
But Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for Bush's re-election campaign, said Kerry was trying to have it both ways. He noted Kerry's promise during the primaries to nominate to the high court only those individuals who support abortion rights.
"John Kerry's reversal today on appointing pro-choice judges shows a startling lack of conviction on an issue that someone seeking the presidency should approach with principled clarity," Schmidt said.
Kerry said he regrets his vote for Scalia, saying he didn't see at the time of the vote in 1986 "such a level of ideology and partisanship" that he now sees in the justice.