INDEPENDENCE, Wis. – John Kerry (search) worked to convince Midwestern family farmers Saturday that his New England heritage doesn't keep him from understanding their needs.
"Look at the power of that land. You can just feel it. You see it," the Democratic presidential candidate told about 100 farmers and others gathered in a barn at a family-owned dairy farm in western Wisconsin. "I know what you love. I know why you're here. It's the way that you feel about this."
On the second day of a three-day bus campaign jaunt through rural Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, Kerry toured the Dejno Acres dairy farm and promoted his agriculture policies as he sought to carve into President Bush's (search) support among rural voters.
Later Saturday, the Massachusetts senator — wearing rugged blue jeans and yellow hiking boots — stopped in Holmen, Wis., to trap-shoot on his way to Dubuque, Iowa, where he planned to watch fireworks on the Mississippi River.
Throughout his hourlong town hall-like meeting in Independence, Kerry spoke of his proposals to require that food labels include a product's country of origin and to expand programs that provide financial aid to farmers (search) who practice conservation.
He also highlighted his plans to prohibit corporate meatpackers from owning livestock more than two weeks before slaughter and to increase production of renewable fuels from corn, soybeans and other agricultural sources.
Kerry defended his support of the 1990s Northeast Dairy Compact, a regional pricing program that propped up prices for Northeastern dairy farmers over objections of their Midwestern counterparts. Congress did not renew the Northeast Dairy Compact when it expired in September 2001.
However, Kerry co-sponsored a bill in 2001 that would have prevented the termination of the compact, as well as create similar price control compacts in other regions of the nation.
"I know that Republicans are going to try very hard to say, 'Oh, John Kerry voted for that dairy compact when he represented Massachusetts,"' Kerry said. "I plead guilty. I did vote for it, because I represented Massachusetts as a United States senator."
Noting that he will be representing the entire country as president, Kerry said he wouldn't support such a regional system if elected.
Marc Racicot, Bush's re-election campaign chairman and former governor of Montana, disputed a comment Kerry made Friday in Minnesota that he represented "conservative values" that rural Americans feel.
"John Kerry's campaign trail amnesia is either a disconcerting departure from his record and votes or a willful effort to deceive the voters of America's heartland," Racicot said. "The American people need to think twice about whether they can trust a candidate who changes his 'values' with the political winds."
Kerry's status as an outsider in the Midwest became clear at the farm when Mary Dejno, the matriarch of the family, introduced Kerry to the invited guests with a playful dig: "We can show off Wisconsin a little bit to this Eastern man." She grinned as she said it.
Later, Kerry chided Dejno and sparked laughter from the crowd. "I've been out here a lot of these 20 years-plus, and you know, we actually have farms in Massachusetts."
Kerry also told the audience that "this kid from the East" had an aunt and uncle who lived on a dairy farm that he visited often when he was young. He also claimed that "one of his greatest joys in life" as a 12-year-old was plowing fields on his their John Deere tractor.
"I learned my first cuss word sitting on a tractor from the guy who was driving it," he said as the crowd chuckled. "And I learned as a kid what it was like to look in back of me, and see those rows, and see that pattern, and feel the sense of accomplishment. And end up dusty and dirty, tired but feeling great."
Earlier Saturday, Kerry delivered the weekly Democratic radio address on the anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
"As we celebrate our many freedoms this Fourth of July," he said, "we should remember that those freedoms are rooted in the courageous struggle for civil rights that reached a turning point 40 years ago this week. And we must not slumber under the false assumption that our work is done."