PORTSMOUTH, Ohio – President Bush (search) on Friday toured Ohio and West Virginia, two swing states that narrowly voted for him four years ago and show signs of repeating their support this year.
Bush's Democratic challenger, John Kerry (search), was spending a second day talking about health care with Midwestern voters.
With 53 days to go until Election Day, the candidates tried to tout "real issues" as the fight over what each did during the Vietnam War continued to dominate media coverage.
Bush in Appalachia
Bush said Friday that if Kerry "had his way," Saddam Hussein would be running Iraq and threatening the safety of other nations.
Campaigning with Sen. Zell Miller (search), D-Ga., who praised Bush for "never wavering, never waffling," the president urged thousands of cheering supporters in Huntington, W.Va., to get new voters on the rolls before Election Day. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in West Virginia.
Bush was campaigning in blue-collar areas hit hard by the economic slowdown in West Virginia and Ohio. As his motorcade trundled down West Main Street in Chillicothe, Ohio, a woman held up a sign that said, "My husband's paycheck moved to China." At the start of the daylong bus tour, Bush stepped up his criticism of Kerry on Iraq.
[For more on Bush's Friday campaign activities, click here]
"The newest wrinkle is that Sen. Kerry has now decided we are spending too much money in Iraq even though he criticized us earlier for not spending enough," Bush said. "One thing about Senator Kerry's position is clear. ... If he had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power and would still be a threat to our security and to the world."
Kerry has not chided Bush for spending too much money on the war but has criticized the president for engaging in "a war of choice" without obtaining more financial support from allies. The war has cost nearly $200 billion that, according to Kerry, could have been used for domestic programs.
At a question-and-answer event in Portsmouth, Ohio, where the unemployment rate this year has hit double digits, a Bush supporter told the president that Kerry attended "the school of flip flops." Bush said that Kerry and running mate John Edwards were among only four senators who voted yes to "use force but 'no' when it comes to funding the troops."
Kerry has said he voted for the $87 billion appropriation for the war when it was to be paid with revenues from rollbacks on some of Bush's tax cuts. When the Republican-controlled Senate rejected that version, Kerry and Edwards voted against it.
In response to what it described as "George Bush's distortions," the Kerry campaign said, "Dick Cheney crossed the line earlier this week, so it's no shock that George Bush is following his lead today." Cheney had remarked that "the wrong choice" by voters could lead to another attack by terrorists.
Kerry in St. Louis
Kerry headed to competitive territory in the suburbs of St. Louis on Friday and argued that Bush slighted seniors while crafting a Medicare prescription drug plan that left a big hole in the coverage and forbid the government from negotiating cheaper prices.
"George W. Bush believes, when it comes to Medicare, the big drug companies come first, the insurance companies come second and seniors come last. Well, I'm going to put you first," Kerry said in remarks prepared for a meeting with seniors.
Kerry also said Bush failed to protect Americans from criminals and terrorists by letting a ban on assault weapons expire next week.
"In the Al Qaeda manual on terror, they were telling people to go out and buy assault weapons, to come to America and buy assault weapons," Kerry said. "Every law enforcement officer in America doesn't want us selling assault weapons in the streets of America, but George Bush, he says, 'Well, I'm for that."'
[For more on Kerry's Friday campaign activities, click here]
As he frequently tells voters on the campaign trail, Kerry said he's a hunter and fisherman who respects the right of Americans to own guns. He has pledged to protect Second Amendment rights and said the ban can be reinstated without trampling those rights.
Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, said health care could be decisive in states like Iowa and Florida with older populations and very close races.
"It's all about costs and the prescription drug law," he said. "That's what you hammer on."
Democrats have traditionally held an edge over Republicans on health care issues.
Bush had eroded some of the Democrats' advantage before he enacted a massive Medicare prescription drug benefit that caused confusion and worry among seniors. The administration has spent millions explaining and promoting the new program.
Despite voters' questions about the administration's signature health-care achievement, they give Bush more credit than Republicans generally on health care issues, Altman said.
While seniors focus on Medicare benefits, younger voters worry about myriad health care cost increases, including rising copays, deductibles, drug costs and premiums.
Some, especially those small businesses or in industries suffering job losses and layoffs, worry that they could quickly end up uninsured.
The voters experiencing each of these anxieties don't necessarily band together into a uniform voting bloc. One example — more than 70 percent of seniors vote, compared with about 30 percent of the uninsured.
"What's important is the people who say health care is an issue, they're not identical," said Robert Blendon, a health policy expert at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "When we talk about what people want, they're somewhat in different places."
Cutting across the voting blocs is anxiety about the cost of drugs, making calls for easier importation of cheaper Canadian drugs one of the most popular health care issues.
"It's winner issue for the public. They're all for it," Altman said. "It's a small symbolic issue with big political punch."
It's also one of Kerry's favorite lines of attack against the president.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.