SPRINGFIELD, Ohio – John Kerry (search) is talking more openly about his personal connection to God and guns as he kicks off the general election campaign asking for support from conservative-leaning independent voters.
As his post-convention bus tour rolls through blue collar and Republican-leaning districts, the Democratic presidential nominee has repeatedly described how he began a lifetime of hunting and fishing as a young boy. And lately he's been speaking in more detail about a faith that he and running mate John Edwards (search) share in God.
"We're running to be lay leaders, but there isn't any way that you're not affected by your fundamental values, the faith that brings you to the table," Kerry said Sunday to worshippers at Greater Grace Temple (search) in the heart of the presidential campaign battleground in Ohio.
With his political enemies trying to portray the Massachusetts senator as an aloof Boston Brahmin, Kerry's campaign is putting a bigger focus on common values that he shares with average Americans -- fishing and hunting, family and faith.
"I don't wear my own faith on my sleeve, but faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday," Kerry said as he accepted the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday.
Kerry didn't mention his interest in hunting in that speech, but he has been describing it on his post-convention bus tour through more conservative areas. In Greensburg, Pa., on Saturday, Kerry pointed out a small group of men wearing bright orange shirts that said "Sportsmen 4 Kerry."
"I've been a fisherman since I was about three years old, four years old," Kerry said. "Flung my first line out with my dad. I've been a hunter since I was about 12 years old, and I went through the whole progression, you know, BB gun to .22s to .30-30, you name it."
Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, said the gun vote could make the difference for Kerry in Pennsylvania.
"The fact that he is a hunter and handles guns so well, I think, is also very, very helpful," Rendell said as he accompanied Kerry on stops in three Pennsylvania counties that chose George Bush in 2000. "I'm cautiously optimistic. I think we should wind up winning by about 4 or 5 points."
Kerry will face opposition from the 4-million-strong National Rifle Association. A quarter of NRA members live in West Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania, all potential swing states.
The NRA says it doesn't matter if Kerry hunts, he usually votes against gun rights in the Senate. Kerry supports extending the ban on assault-type weapons and requiring background checks at gun shows. He opposes granting gun makers immunity from civil lawsuits.
Kerry touts his love of fishing and hunting amid his call for environmental conservation, a position more popular with his Democratic base.
"I understand something about hunting and fishing," Kerry said in Wheeling, W. Va., Saturday "In the United States of America today in 28 of our states, ... you're not allowed to eat the fish if you're lucky enough to catch them in the waters of those states because of the level of mercury, the level of toxics and pollution. We have an obligation ... if we want to hunt and we want to fish to make sure it's there not just for us but for future generations."
Kerry's talk of God also could help him shore up part of his base, especially as he spends his Sundays worshipping at largely black churches. Sunday, Kerry told the mostly black congregation at the non-denominational Greater Grace Temple that he and Edwards, who lost his son in a car accident, survived personal tragedy through faith in God.
"I was at war, lost some of my best friends, those I grew up with and those I fought with," Kerry said. "And I sort of questioned, why does this happen, why did this happen, what's going on? We all question. And we learn that even though suffering, through loss, we get in touch with power, with the being, with the almighty."
Even among the scientists and technicians at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, Kerry paid tribute Monday to "the higher power."
"More physicists and more and more scientists, the more they learn in some ways the less they know about some things and the more they believe in that power," Kerry said.
Kerry tries to distinguish himself from President Bush on religion. On CBS' "Face the Nation" program broadcast Sunday, Kerry said Bush occasionally has crossed a line between church and state, although he said he doesn't know if it's intentional or inadvertent.
"I'm Christian, I'm Catholic, it's important to me," Kerry said. "It has served me through my whole life. But as I said in my [convention] speech, I'm not going to say God is on my side and I'm not going to go out and divide people. I want to pray that we are on God's side."
Guns, God and gays are the classic issues that some pundits say motivate social conservatives. Unless he's asked, Kerry has not recently mentioned his position on gay rights, even as same sex couples are being married under conservative protests in his home state and elsewhere.
Kerry does not support gay marriage, but says committed homosexual couples should be given all the legal rights that married couples have.