Democrat John Kerry (search) said Tuesday there's no compassionate conservatism (search) in the Bush administration's economic policies, prompting the president to respond that the economy is strong and growing.

"I guess if you want to find something to be pessimistic about, you can find it," President Bush (search) said.

"I'm optimistic," Bush said during a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (search) in the White House Rose Garden. He described the economy as strong and continuing to improve. "I have seen what we have come through. We've been through a recession, a national emergency, corporate scandals, a war and yet our economy is incredibly strong."

Bush has some statistics on his side — 1.2 million jobs have been created this year, and he also noted that consumer spending and after-tax disposable income is higher. But Kerry is armed with numbers that paint a more sobering picture — 1.2 million more people unemployed than when Bush took office in January 2001, and Kerry says the costs of health insurance premiums, child care, college tuition (search) and gas are rising as workers earn less.

In a speech to the New Jersey State AFL-CIO (search), Kerry criticized the Bush administration for preparing to cut budgets for education, domestic security, veterans and other programs after the election, citing White House planning documents.

"If you think that is compassionate conservatism, then [Vice President] Dick Cheney is Mr. Rogers," Kerry said.

"All these politicians running around talking about values, I just think it's wrong," Kerry told union workers. "For middle-class Americans to be saddled with endless debt and deficits while the most fortunate among us walk away with billions in tax cuts. Where does that value come from? As president, I'm going to fight to put America's tax code in line with our moral code."

Kerry is campaigning during the next two weeks on the financial problems facing families despite the economic recovery. Bush's re-election campaign is calling it Kerry's "pessimism and misery tour."

Kerry, speaking to reporters before a fund-raiser in Cincinnati, said Bush's comment "has no relationship to reality" and that the pessimists are in the Bush administration.

"I think it's very pessimistic to stand up and say the economy is doing great, here we are — we failed in our promise to create 5.1 million jobs," Kerry said. "Four million Americans have lost their health insurance. I didn't fund education in the country, but everything is fine. I mean, that's cynicism about America. My optimism about America says we can do better."

Kerry raised $500,000 for his presidential campaign and $300,000 for the Democratic National Committee (search) at the Cincinnati luncheon fund-raiser attended by about 350 people, according to David Wade, his spokesman.

At the brief news conference before the event, Kerry also:

— Said torture is never acceptable. Bush refused to answer the same question last week. Kerry said Bush is underestimating the damage the Iraqi prisoner abuse (search) scandal has caused for the U.S. reputation. If he were president, Kerry said he would appoint a respected leader outside the Pentagon to investigate. He mentioned several Republicans who could fill the job — Sens. John McCain of Arizona or John Warner of Virginia or former Sens. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire or Bob Dole of Kansas. Kerry also mentioned former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell of Maine. "It is vital for us to prove to the world that this is really not going to be swept under the rug," Kerry said.

— Said he expects Federal Reserve (search) Chairman Alan Greenspan to consider an interest rate-hike soon, with inflation increasing.

— Responded to reports that Bush asked the Vatican to aggressively support socially conservative values in the United States. "It was entirely and extraordinarily inappropriate," Kerry said.

— Said he welcomed a weeklong meeting of archbishops in Denver to discuss whether they should withhold Holy Communion (search) from Roman Catholic politicians, including Kerry, who support abortion rights. Kerry said he is confident that "wisdom will prevail in the course of those discussions."