Campaign Focus Shifts to Economy, Health

President Bush (search) and John Kerry (search) focused on matters closer to home Thursday as they talked about the economy and health care, pushing the war with Iraq to the side.

At Byers' Choice (search), a Colmar, Pa., company that makes the Caroler brand of Christmas figurines, Bush listed his record of achievements and re-introduced some of the ideas he proposed during the Republican National Convention for expanding the economy.

"The other night at the convention, I announced American opportunity zones. These zones will provide tax relief and other incentives for new businesses to be created, and to improve housing and job training and bringing hope. In other words, in changing times, there are ways to help communities that have suffered during changing times, with good tax policy, good regulation policy and good housing policy," Bush said.

The president also offered ideas to expand health care to the uninsured. New Census Bureau figures out last month showed 1.5 million more uninsured people in the United States than in 2001.

Bush said he wants to expand rural and community health centers, reform the legal system to inhibit the filing of frivolous lawsuits and offer tax credits to encourage small businesses and employees to set up health savings accounts while giving a direct hand to low-income Americans wishing to open those same accounts.

"Do you realize more than half the uninsured are employees of small businesses?" Bush asked. "One way to help small businesses afford health care is to allow small firms to join together to purchase insurance at the discounts available to big companies."

Nicolle Devenish, a spokeswoman for Bush's re-election campaign, said Bush's speech marks "the first time since the convention where he lays out his comprehensive vision for the economy."

Devenish said Bush is expanding on his economic philosophy, which outlines the appropriate role of the federal government and aims to create more opportunities for ownership. A basic element of the philosophy is the chance to own small businesses and homes and also to be in control of one's own health care and retirement, she said.

But Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, argued that Bush's policies benefit only the wealthy and unfairly burden the middle class. The Democrat has said Bush's program has not produced a significant number of new jobs and has increased the federal deficit.

Kerry also said Bush has failed to hold down rising health care costs during his four years in office, and he cited a new report that showed a double-digit increase in insurance premiums for the fourth year in a row.

"Health care just has this unlimited ability to keep going up every year, and people can't keep up with it. President Bush for four years has had an opportunity to try to deal with this, and he has no plan at all," Kerry said at a campaign stop in Des Moines, Iowa. "In fact, he's been busy losing people's coverage."

Kerry said he wants to help more businesses offer health care by requiring the federal government pick up 75 percent of catastrophic health care costs, a plan the campaign estimates will lower premiums 10 percent on average. He would give small businesses a tax credit to help employers bear the rising cost of health insurance.

The Bush-Cheney campaign said the Democrat's health plans will do little to bring down the cost of health care.

"John Kerry has pledged to raise taxes for a trillion-dollar health care plan that will put control in the hands of government without addressing costs," said spokesman Steve Schmidt. "The president's plan will actually reduce costs by curbing the frivolous lawsuits that Kerry has defended and by putting more power in the hands of doctors and patients."

Later Thursday, Bush rallied supporters in Johnstown, Pa., defending his record on job creation -- and warning voters there of a "hidden Kerry tax plan."

Meanwhile, Kerry spoke in New Orleans to the National Baptist Convention, saying Bush ignores issues facing black America and accusing him of failing the Biblical test set by the Good Samaritan.

"He's seen people in need, but he's crossed over to the other side of the street," Kerry said.

Pennsylvania, with 21 electoral votes, is one of the most hotly contested states in this year's presidential election. Bush lost the state to Democrat Al Gore in 2000 by 4.2 percentage points. A Gallup poll released Thursday showed the two candidates in a dead heat in Pennsylvania, with Bush at 48 and Kerry at 47 percent among likely voters.

A FOX News-Opinion Dynamics poll out Thursday showed the president ahead of Kerry in a two-way race 47-45, within the three-point margin of error. When independent candidate Ralph Nader is added, Bush wins 47 percent of the vote, Kerry takes 43 percent and Nader gets 3 percent.

Wrong Direction or Right Way?

On Wednesday, Kerry accused Bush of leaving a trail of broken promises on the path to war and said the commander in chief squandered money in Iraq that could have been put to better use at home.

"George W. Bush's wrong choices have led America in the wrong direction in Iraq and left America without the resources we need here at home," Kerry said at the Cincinnati Museum Center.

"I would not have made the wrong choices that are forcing us to pay nearly the entire cost of this war — more than $200 billion that we're not investing in education, health care and job creation here at home."

The U.S.-led war against Iraq succeeded in ending Saddam Hussein's regime and ultimately led to his capture. A new U.S.-backed government is now in control of Iraq, although militant forces continue to stage violent attacks against Iraqi and U.S. forces.

"His miscalculation was going to war without taking every precaution and without giving the inspectors time," the Massachusetts senator said, referring to United Nations searches for alleged weapons of mass destruction. "His miscalculation was going to war without planning carefully and without the allies we should have had."

In conjunction with the speech, Kerry unveiled an ad that accuses Bush of squandering $200 billion on Iraq while the United States suffers "lost jobs" and "rising health care costs." The commercial claims "George Bush's wrong choices have weakened us here at home."

Steve Schmidt, spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, noted that Kerry voted to authorize the use of force, and said the speech is "consistent with his position that he is proud of voting against $87 billion in funding for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Bush on Wednesday said he would not be swayed from his path. "We're still at war," he said while meeting with congressional leaders. "We've got to do everything we can to protect the homeland."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.