CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) on Friday traced North Carolina's job loss over the past four years to President Bush's fixation on tax cuts for the wealthy and indifference to the needs of everyday Americans.
"I think every American deserves to have leadership that understands the difficulties of average folks," Kerry told about 300 supporters at a Charlotte community college that focuses on job retraining.
Kerry made his second appearance of the summer in this conservative Southern state before flying to southwest Florida to survey the wide swath of damage inflicted by Hurricane Charley (search).
Before addressing the town hall, Kerry had an "around-the-toolbench" discussion with laid-off workers enrolled in a retraining program at Central Piedmont Community College. North Carolina has lost 162,000 manufacturing jobs since Bush took office.
One of the workers, Peter Offnick, told Kerry he lost his job of 30 years when the electronic board processing company packed up its production and moved to Mexico. Offnick said he got three months severance pay, "no pension, no nothing."
"Thirty years invested in your company and they give you three months and a little certificate," Kerry said at the town hall meeting. "Surely we can do better than that in our country."
The Bush campaign said that Kerry's vow to rollback the tax cut would take money out of the hands of employers rather than help them create a stronger economy.
"That tax increase will be paid by small business owners who are creating jobs in America," said Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt. "John Kerry's promise of more taxes, more regulation and his opposition to lawsuit reform are going to slow down the economic recovery that has created 1.5 million jobs this year."
Kerry chose this economically struggling state, where polls show him pulling within reach of Bush, to pitch a job creation plan that includes enforcing trade agreements and curbing the outsourcing of jobs by ending tax credits for companies that ship jobs overseas.
He also detailed his proposal to roll back the Bush tax cut for those making more than $200,000, reduce the corporate tax rate by 5 percent, and give companies tax credits for new manufacturing jobs created in 2005 and 2006.
In a quip, Kerry said he was already working hard to create at least one new local job.
"Let it never be said that I'm not doing my best for North Carolina jobs," Kerry said. "I'm trying to promote John Edwards."
Kerry's visit galvanized local Democrats, who believe the campaign is taking the state seriously despite six straight Republican presidential victories here.
"Some say Democrats can't win in North Carolina," said former Gov. Jim Hunt. "Well, I won five times. John Edwards (search) won in North Carolina, and John Kerry and John Edwards are going to win in North Carolina in November."
A recent poll showed Kerry within the margin of error in North Carolina, with Bush leading 48 percent to 45 percent.
Former Mayor Harvey Gantt, who ran two bruising campaigns against former GOP Sen. Jesse Helms, denounced the recent attacks on Kerry's Vietnam war record.
"I know what negative campaigning can do," Gantt said. "America and North Carolina are tired of negative campaigning."
Polling by the National Annenberg Election Survey found that half of Americans have heard about or seen an ad that claims Kerry lied to obtain his Vietnam War medals. People were about evenly split on the believability of the ads — generally along partisan lines.
Independents were about evenly split about whether the ad was believable and by a 3-1 margin said they believe Kerry earned his medals.
After his speech Friday, where Bush addressed the same topics in April, Kerry left to catch a flight to Fort Myers, Fla., to tour the hurricane zone with the state's junior senator, Democrat Bill Nelson.
While Bush visited the battleground state two days after Charley struck, Kerry stayed away, saying he feared his presence could impede the recovery effort.