updated 8/26/2004 8:58:33 PM ET 2004-08-27T00:58:33

President Bush said Thursday that, with Election Day some 10 weeks away, rival John Kerry likely will propose new costly federal programs that would lead to tax increases on the middle-class.

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“You know how tempting it is to get out in front of the people and make promise after promise,” the president told several thousand supporters on the campus of New Mexico State University. “If he gets elected, he’s going to tax you, but the good news is we’re not going to let him get elected.”

Kerry, meanwhile, challenged Bush to a series of weekly debates and cast his agenda to health care issues Thursday, saying in remarks prepared for an appearance in the Minneapolis area that voters will have to choose between putting the interest of health insurance companies and big drug companies over those of patients.

“Today, millions of Americans have one option for health care: Emergency room in the middle of the night,” he said.

“We’ve got families who are just one accident, one illness away from financial ruin. And we’ve got grandparents cutting their pills in half, choosing between filling their prescriptions and heating their homes. America can do better,” he added.

Video: Kerry challenges Bush On his call for weekly debates, Kerry said, “America deserves a discussion like we’re having here today, which I’m prepared to have with this president every single week from now until the election,” the Democratic presidential candidate said.

Kerry issued the challenge while speaking about health care at Anoka, Minn.,Technical College, fielding questions from a group of more than 200 people, some of them self-described undecided voters.

The Bush campaign did not directly respond to the new challenge. “During the next few weeks, John Kerry should take the time to finish the debates with himself,” said Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt.

Flying to New Mexico after a week at his Texas ranch, Bush said Kerry has already proposed $2.2 trillion worth of new promises “and we’re just getting started.”

'A problem being straight'
Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer responded later: “George Bush seems to have a problem being straight with the American people. John Kerry has been very clear about the fact that he will cut taxes for 98 percent of Americans. George Bush continues to avoid talking about the fact that his tax cuts have placed an increasingly larger portion of the tax burden onto the middle class.”

Bush resumed his criticism of Kerry’s record on the war in Iraq, saying the Democrat had repeatedly changed positions, an assertion seconded by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who campaigned with Bush.

Giuliani attacked Kerry as a candidate who says something one day and something else the next and praised Bush for guiding the nation “through some of its most difficult days, some of our worst times.”

Bush’s return to the campaign trail came amid the uproar over ads by an outside group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, attacking Kerry’s war record by alleging he lied to get his medals. Aboard Air Force One heading for New Mexico, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president wants to work with Republican Sen. John McCain to pursue court action against all the political attack ads by outside groups.

As Bush campaigned in the Southwest, Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie planned to speak out about the independent groups that have poured tens of millions of dollars into TV ads attacking both candidates. Bush has denounced all the ads, but refuses to specifically condemn the attacks on Kerry.

Video: Bush: Kerry misunderstands terrorists Bush is campaigning in three parts of the fast-growing state including its two largest cities as he tries to reverse a 366-vote loss four years ago.

Kerry running mate John Edwards also was campaigning in the state. Bush’s first stop of the day was in Las Cruces, New Mexico’s second-largest city. Edwards was in nearby Messila.

In the Las Cruces area of southern New Mexico, registered Democrats hold a significant edge over Republicans, 53 percent to 29 percent. Yet Bush lost the county encompassing Las Cruces by a mere 2,600 votes four years ago.

Why so much time in N.M.
“There’s a sizable proportion of moderate to conservative Democrats; those are the ones swinging elections,” says New Mexico pollster Brian Sanderoff. “A large proportion of new voters unaffiliated with either party further cements New Mexico as a swing state, which is why Bush has been here so much.”

And Hispanics account for nearly 39 percent of the voting age population in the state, which has 1.8 million residents. As of last June, there were 498,991 registered Democrats, 310,061 Republicans, 10,107 Greens and 139,220 independents and minor party voters.

Kerry has already made four trips to New Mexico this year, and Thursday marks Bush’s fourth.

In the Albuquerque area, the GOP has held the area’s congressional district for more than two decades, despite a sizable Democratic advantage in voter registration.

Nearly a third of the state’s population is in the county where Albuquerque is.

Bush also makes an appearance in Farmington, an area filled with conservative supporters in the oil and gas country of northwest New Mexico.

There are nearly 32,000 newly registered Democrats in the state in the past 10 months, compared to just over 16,000 Republicans, a trend that looks bad for Bush.

New voters
Yet it is the pool of 19,986 new voters unaffiliated with either party that political analysts see as an important factor in the election.

Kerry's campaign also planned to open a drive to reach undecided and politically indifferent women voters, hoping they might boost the Massachusetts senator’s bid to unseat Bush in November.

The campaign said jobs, health care and economic security are among the major issues of interest to women and that Teresa Heinz Kerry, the Democratic nominee’s wife, and Elizabeth Edwards, wife of vice presidential nominee John Edwards, and members of both families would kick off the effort at events in Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire and Ohio.

In the 2000 presidential election women represented 52 percent of the electorate but as many as 22 million unmarried women did not vote that year, according to a statement released by the Kerry campaign.

Today, it said, 73 percent of that same nonvoting group believes the country needs a change in leadership.

Some polls have indicated Kerry is already drawing more support from women than is Bush by anywhere from 9 to 11 points; but with the same surveys showing the contest very close, efforts to persuade the undecided and energize those who don’t bother to vote — men and women alike — are a major concern in both camps.

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