AUSTINTOWN, Ohio – Ohio was a popular place for the presidential candidates this weekend, with Sen. John Kerry (search) taking to Cleveland, home of the vice presidential debate on Tuesday, where he condemned both President Bush's (search) domestic policies as well as his position on Iraq.
Appearing first at a picket line in Niles, where workers were protesting a yearlong lockout over stalled contract talks, Kerry handed out doughnuts while trying to pick up votes. Later, he headed to Austintown Fitch High School near Youngstown, where he sat amidst a roundtable to discuss the economic struggles of the American family.
Kerry blamed wrong-headed economic policy, beginning with tax cuts he says are tilted to help the rich and loopholes that favor big companies.
Republicans, he said, "are down there fighting with everything they've got to give the wealthiest people in the country a permanent tax break," Kerry said.
"With our economy dragging and costs going through the roof, George Bush has done nothing to create jobs," the Massachusetts senator added. "In fact, the only plan he's come up with is one that actually makes things worse. Because of George Bush's bad choices, every year, Americans are getting robbed of at least $40 billion in taxes we're owed."
At the town hall meeting, unemployed workers told Kerry of their plights, including the loss of health care benefits, trouble paying their mortgages and even one worker's inability to buy a homecoming dress for his teenage daughter. Kerry said if he is elected, he could bring less expensive health care back to the unemployed workers.
Ohio is a toss-up state that has lost 200,000 jobs in the last four years. Kerry has visited Ohio at least 18 times this year. Mahoning County, where Kerry visited, was solid ground for Democrat Al Gore in 2000, but Kerry spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said the Democrats there are "mavericks" who are open to crossing party lines.
Palmieri said the voters in the region are distraught about plant closings and fights with management over cuts to wages and benefits. "They don't think the president can do anything about jobs," she said.
Campaigning in Ohio on Saturday, Bush went after Kerry's foreign policy and gave a preview of his line of attack in the next debate, which is expected to focus on the economy and health care.
"There's a big difference in this campaign on health care. You listen carefully to what my opponent is laying out, it says one thing: The federal government is going to run it," Bush said. Bush was in Washington, D.C., on Sunday. He was not campaigning, but instead went to church and took a bike ride near the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va.
Even on a down day, though, Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt fought back, saying all of Kerry's promises will lead to higher taxes for all Americans. He suggested that's why Kerry can't pull ahead in Ohio, "People in states all across the country are rejecting it."
Even as the focus shifts to domestic issues, some political pundits say the election will still turn on national security issues.
"I don't think he will get elected by winning the debate. I think he'll get elected by winning the war in Iraq," said Fox News contributor Bill Kristol.
For his part, Kerry didn't let the meeting end without speaking to Bush's Iraq policy. He referred to a New York Times newspaper article that raised questions about whether the administration was "open and honest about making the case for the war in Iraq," and suggested that the president has a problem with truth-telling.
"They'll tell you even as the jobs are being shipped overseas that this is the best economy we've ever had," Kerry said. "Bush has one set of priorities. The drug companies are doing great, [Vice President Cheney's former company] Halliburton is doing great. The American people should be doing great and that's my priority."
Meanwhile, both presidential candidates' campaigns are playing down a new poll that shows Kerry leading Bush 47-45 in a three-way race with Ralph Nader and 49-46 in a head-to-head matchup.
In the Newsweek poll, both numbers are within the margin of error, but the statistics show the president's lead evaporating after four weeks of running ahead. Following the Republican convention in New York, Bush led in the Newsweek poll by 11 points.
Kerry said he doesn't run his campaign by the polls, but the latest numbers have clearly cheered his supporters.
"One month from today, we have a chance to change our country," Kerry told voters in Florida on Saturday.
Kerry aides are also downplaying the poll, noting that two more presidential debates are coming before the Nov. 2 vote. Tuesday is also the vice-presidential faceoff between Dick Cheney and Democratic opponent John Edwards.
Senior Bush political adviser Karl Rove dismissed the results, saying that the campaign expected the numbers to tighten before the election.
It's "the nature of the contest," he said.
The Bush camp can see some silver lining in the cloudy poll picture. A Los Angeles Times poll out Sunday shows that the public's perception of Bush did not diminish even though Kerry gained favor. Only a tiny percentage of debate viewers polled before and after the debate would change their vote in either direction, leaving the horserace virtually unchanged. Bush's approval rating also remained unchanged.
Rove said the president has no plans to alter his preparations before the second debate, except to make slight changes in order to be ready for the town hall-style format that will be used on Friday in St. Louis, Mo.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.