msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 3/10/2004 10:45:38 PM ET 2004-03-11T03:45:38

Their campaign rhetoric growing ever hotter, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry focused on economic themes Wednesday with the president defending his record in the crucial swing state of Ohio and his Democratic challenger proposing middle-class tax cuts.

The president said Democrats were setting the nation up for a “disaster” while Kerry, chatting with supporters in Chicago, called Republicans “the most crooked ... lying group I’ve ever seen.”

A day after Kerry scored easy primary wins in four southern states including the November battleground of Florida, Bush traveled to the crucial swing state of Ohio, where blue-collar workers have seen huge job losses during his administration.

He branded Kerry as a pessimist who would endanger U.S. prosperity and job growth with isolationist trade policies and tax hikes. Kerry, meanwhile, called for deeper tax cuts for the middle class than proposed by Bush.

Bush never mentioned Kerry by name. But his spokesman said the president’s remarks were aimed at Democrats, including the Massachusetts senator, who pledged to roll back Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and to safeguard jobs by subjecting U.S. trade pacts to special scrutiny.

“They don’t explain how closing off markets abroad would help the millions of Americans who produce goods for export or work for foreign companies right here,” the Republican president said hours after the government released trade data showing a record $43.1 billion January deficit.

‘The enemy of job creation’
“The old policy of tax and spend is the enemy of job creation. The old policy of economic isolationism is a recipe for economic disaster,” Bush, who has irked trade partners by protecting steel and other key U.S. industries, told a government-sponsored women’s summit on entrepreneurship.

The economy has emerged as a central issue in the 2004 campaign, sparking an early war of words between Bush and his Democratic challenger over issues including the loss of 2.8 million U.S. manufacturing jobs during the president’s tenure.

After urging labor leaders to support his campaign to oust the president, Kerry met in Washington with onetime rival Howard Dean to discuss a possible endorsement and what role the former Vermont governor might play in his campaign. Kerry greeted Dean as he arrived at campaign headquarters, and the two joined hands and raised them high for cameras.

Kerry was scheduled to meet with another key rival, John Edwards, on Thursday.

Anticipating their meeting, the Bush campaign issued “Howard Dean’s Greatest Hits on John Kerry,” a 10-item recounting of Dean criticism of his rival for the nomination. The quotes from news stories include Dean’s statement in January that “you’re not going to change America by nominating somebody who’s a Washington insider whose biggest long suit is talk.”

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Kerry had 2,001 delegates after sweeping four Southern primaries Tuesday, an Associated Press analysis showed. He wasn’t expected to reach 2,162, the number needed to secure the nomination, until next week because of the way the party allocates delegates.

Earlier Wednesday in Chicago, Kerry toughened his comments about his GOP critics after a supporter urged him to take on Bush. “Let me tell you, we’ve just begun to fight,” Kerry said. “We’re going to keep pounding. These guys are the most crooked, you know, lying group I’ve ever seen. It’s scary.”

Bush-Cheney campaign chairman Marc Racicot called on Kerry to apologize.

“Senator Kerry’s statement today in Illinois was unbecoming of a candidate for the presidency of the United States of America, and tonight we call on Senator Kerry to apologize to the American people for this negative attack,” Racicot said in a statement. “On the day that Senator Kerry emerged as his party’s presumptive nominee, the president called to congratulate him. That goodwill gesture has been met by attacks and false statements.”

‘A Democrat who fights back’
Kerry spokesman David Wade said the senator was referring to Republican critics in general. “The Republicans have launched the most personal, crooked, deceitful attacks over the last four years,” Wade said. “He’s a Democrat who fights back.”

The Bush-Cheney campaign answered back, saying, “At every turn, John Kerry has claimed to be the victim of an imaginary smear machine. John Kerry has run a relentlessly negative campaign from the very beginning and this comment is completely consistent with that.”

In a speech to top leaders of the AFL-CIO, Kerry said a “Bush Tax” stemming from the president’s economic policies has driven up costs for working families. He vowed to reverse that trend while asking those making more than $200,000 a year to pay the same taxes they paid under President Clinton, effectively repealing portions of a tax cut Bush pushed through Congress.

Kerry also proposed creating a $50 billion fund to help states provide relief from state and local taxes for working families that he said have been struggling.

“Under George Bush’s policies, middle-class families are paying more,” he said. “America’s middle class can’t afford a tax increase. That’s why we’re going to give the middle class a tax cut.”

In response, the Bush campaign accused Kerry of favoring broad tax increases that would affect all taxpayers.

350 pro-tax votes alleged
“John Kerry has voted for higher taxes 350 times and his numbers for new spending don’t add up,” said Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman. “His campaign-trail promises mean he is going to raise taxes by at least $900 billion.” It is the first time the Bush campaign has put a number on tax hikes it says Kerry favors.

Kerry said a middle-class tax cut would do far more to spark the economy than what Bush has pushed.

“Our middle-class tax cut will help working people afford college and pay for health care and make ends meet,” he said. “If this president wants to make this election about taxes after he’s cut billions for billionaires and given middle-class families a larger share to pay, we’re ready for that fight.”

Kerry spoke via satellite to AFL-CIO leaders at their winter convention in Florida, courting a constituency he’s counting on for money and organizational muscle. Facing an unfriendly White House, labor is likely to play an energetic role in the Kerry campaign, even if he wasn’t the first choice of most unions.

© 2013 msnbc.com

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