Mannie Garcia  /  Reuters
US President George W. Bush speaks to a crowd at a campaign stop in Cambridge, Ohio.
updated 7/31/2004 7:24:58 PM ET 2004-07-31T23:24:58

President Bush and rival John Kerry scoured the Rust Belt for support Saturday in battleground states such as Ohio, where the candidates offered conflicting messages about the economy.

“The economy is strong, and it’s getting stronger,” Bush said to enthusiastic applause in Canton as the general election campaign began in earnest after Kerry claimed the Democratic nomination last week at the party’s convention in Boston.

The president acknowledged the economy is lagging in eastern Ohio and elsewhere. In fact, he rode into the city on a campaign bus with 10 workers from the Timken Co., which said in May that declining production was behind the decision to close three bearings plants in Canton area, potentially idling 1,300 employees.

“I just traveled on the bus with workers who told me they were nervous about their future,” Bush said. “They’re concerned. I am, too, and therefore we must have a president who understands that if we’re to keep jobs at home, America must be the best place to do business.”

Coast-to-coast trip for Kerry
Kerry, on the second day of a two-week coast-to-coast trip with running mate John Edwards, told supporters in Greensburg, Pa., “The president said to America that we’re turning the corner, referring to the economy.

“Let me ask you: if you’re one of those 44 million Americans who doesn’t have health insurance, and you have no prospect of buying it, are you turning a corner?”

“No!” the crowd yelled.

“If you’re one of those people that has a job that pays $9,000 less than the jobs that we lost overseas, are we turning the corner for those folks?”

“No!” again was the response.

The Democrats were ending their day in Zanesville, about 25 miles along Interstate 70 from Cambridge, where Bush stopped after Canton before crossing the Ohio River into Wheeling, W.Va. Less than two hours later, Kerry was staging an event in Wheeling before setting out for Zanesville. And Bush was headed toward Pennsylvania, a battleground state with 21 electoral votes, one more than Ohio.

Meanwhile, retired Gen. Merrill A. McPeak, who was Air Force chief of staff during the first Gulf War, said Saturday in the Democrats’ weekly radio address that he withdrew his support from President Bush to support Kerry on the strength of Kerry’s wartime service and experience in Vietnam.

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“The real deal for me is not whether a strategy or a plan or an idea is Republican or Democrat, but whether it makes us safer,” he said. “And it means an awful lot to me that John Kerry fought for his country as a young man.”

McPeak also questioned the president’s “grudging cooperation” with the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Bush touts his economic record
Bush, meanwhile, used his weekly radio address, which was recorded Friday and aired on Saturday, to insist that despite a record federal deficit and slow economic growth, the U.S. economy is on a “rising path.”

He worked to convince voters that the economic rebound is not stalling. Bush's optimistic forecast came a day after the White House projected that the deficit for the budget year ending Sept. 30 will soar to $445 billion — the highest in history.

Bush said consumer confidence reached a two-year high in July, existing home sales hit a record in June and the home ownership rate has climbed to a record level.

“All of this added economic activity is creating opportunity,” he said. “Since last August, Americans have started work at more than 1.5 million new jobs, many of them in high-growth, high-paying industries.”

Administration officials noted that the projected deficit was less than the $521 billion forecast in February, and said they were on their way to their goal of halving this year’s shortfall in five years.

Democrats view the statistics differently. They say the budget shortfall is the third consecutive — and ever-growing — deficit posted on Bush’s watch, following four annual surpluses in a row under President Clinton. Democrats say it’s evidence of the damage done by Bush’s tax cuts and his poor stewardship of the economy.

Key state
No Republican has captured the White House without carrying Ohio, which he did in 2000 when he defeated Democrat Al Gore by 3.6 percentage points to win the state’s 20 electoral votes.

Stark County, home to Canton, is an area that Ohio political analysts say is a bellwether for the state in presidential elections.

Ohio has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs, and the county’s unemployment rate was 6.4 percent in June, compared with 5.6 percent nationally. The federal deficit is at a record high, and economic growth slowed this spring.

Still, Bush struck a positive tone during the 19th visit to Ohio of his presidency.

“After four more years, there will be better paying jobs in America. After four more years, there will be more small businesses. After four more years, the American economy will continue to be the strongest in the world,” the president said.

Later, in Cambridge, Bush offered a new stump speech with the phrases, “We’ve turned the corner, and we’re not turning back” and “Results matter.”

Bush traveled on a seven-bus motorcade — a caravan called “the Heart and Soul Moving America Forward” tour — that rolled south out of Cleveland in the early morning.

It stopped at the Cleveland Browns training camp in Berea, where Bush shook hands, chatted and threw a football with the players.

On a dreary day, the convoy rolled on, at 40 mph and slower, through cities such as North Royalton, where people waved flags with one hand and held umbrellas with the other.

In Canton, Bush supporters lined the streets, but protesters were present, too. “Where are the jobs, George,” one sign said. “Protect my future, vote Kerry,” said a second.

Thousands of people, overwhelmingly supporters of the president, lined the streets of Dover when the buses came through town.

One woman raised a sign that said, “Dover apologizes for the idiots ahead.” It was a reference to demonstrators a few blocks ahead where Kerry supporters chanted “No more Bush!” and held signs that said “War is not healthy.”

As evidence of the conflicted race for the White House, a man at the counter told the president, “Four more years.” Earlier, in Canton, a boy held up a sign along the bus route that said, “Bush’s last tour.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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