CHICAGO – Touring a struggling job-training site, Democrat John Kerry (search) on Friday sought to refocus the presidential race on pocketbook issues, warning of "almost criminal" cuts in bedrock training and education programs.
"I'm tired of talking about valuing families and not valuing families," Kerry said. "There are unbelievable, unacceptable, staggering numbers of young lives that are being abandoned in our country."
Kerry held a town hall meeting at a job-training site where officials said their budget and the number of students they can train have been slashed because of cuts.
"This is pretty simple. The workplace of the United States of America is as stressed as I don't think I've seen it stressed at any time," Kerry said. "That's almost criminal. It's not criminal, but I want to underscore how unbelievable it is."
Kerry accused Bush of slashing $1 billion from job-training programs. "You shouldn't be abandoned and struggling the way you are today," he said.
After a week of turmoil and mounting deaths in Iraq, Kerry was focusing on jobs and the economy in a Midwest battleground state where 142,000 industrial jobs have been lost in the last three years.
"This campaign is about change," he said. "It's about putting Americans back to work and putting America back on the right track."
Joined at the town hall meeting by Democratic Senate nominee Barack Obama (search), Kerry said far more attention needs to be paid to struggling school systems like Chicago's, where more than 30 percent of students don't finish high school and the number is even higher for minorities.
"It's time for us to put real mainstream values back front and center," Kerry said. He accused Bush of "a long history of misleading America" about Kerry's plans for the economy.
"Under my economic plan we protect the middle class," said Kerry, rejecting Bush's charge that he would raise taxes as president. "Under my economic plan, we can put Americans back to work."
Kerry denied he was a tax-and-spend liberal. "I'm not confiscatorial," he said of his tax plan, which he argued would simply end tax cuts for the wealthiest.
Bush, Kerry contended, has largely ignored domestic issues like jobs and the economy.
"He thinks more about photo opportunities than he does about job opportunities," Kerry said.
Illinois is a state that has trended Democratic in recent elections and is one Kerry likely must win in the fall. Obama said there's a solid chance Kerry can lock up the state even before the fall campaign.
"We hope to take Illinois out of play sometime in the summer," Obama said.
Kerry opened his day with a fund-raising breakfast where he brought in another $100,000 for his campaign. He couldn't entirely escape the tumult in Iraq, facing questions from big givers about how he would change course.
"This administration has been gridlocked by its own ideology, it's own arrogance," he said. "The job of the president of the United States is to minimize the risk to our troops, minimize the cost to the American people and to maximize the prospects for success." Kerry said Bush has failed on all those counts.
"This administration has stubbornly refused to involve other countries in the real decision making," he said. "I think this has been a failure of diplomacy, a failure of foreign policy."
That drew a quick response from the Bush campaign. "Today, John Kerry had an opportunity to send a clear message that the United States will not be intimidated by a small group of thugs and cut and run from Iraq," Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said. "Instead, he chose to play politics and again refused to offer any details about what he would propose to differently."