Video: Battle for Ohio

NBC News and news services
updated 10/21/2004 9:28:53 PM ET 2004-10-22T01:28:53

President Bush and Sen. John Kerry continued their battle for swing states on Thursday, dueling over health care, medical liability reform and scientific research.

At a rally in Downingtown, Pa., Bush said Kerry’s plans for health care and liability reform would be even higher costs and more federal involvement.

And in Columbus, Ohio, Kerry accused Bush of slowing scientific advancement after earning a special endorsement from the widow of actor Christopher Reeve, a proponent of the embryonic stem cell research on which the president has placed limits.

The candidates’ focus on the Midwest states reflects their continuing deadlock in polls there, in Florida and a number of other swing states. Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida are the electoral crown jewels among the 10 or so battleground states — together, they account for 68 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House — and many analysts believe that whichever candidate wins two of the three will win the election Nov. 2.

Bush won Florida, with 27 electoral votes, and Ohio, with 20 electoral votes, in 2000. Al Gore captured Pennsylvania with 21 electoral votes.

“The Kerry plan would move America down the road toward federal control of health care,” Bush told hundreds of supporters in an area outside Philadelphia that he won by 18,000 votes four years ago. Some recent polls show Kerry with a slight advantage in Pennsylvania.

Kerry’s prescription for health care is “bigger government with higher costs,” Bush said, a claim that the Democrat’s campaign says is false.

Video: Political fear factor The number of uninsured Americans increased by 5 million over the past four years and the government announced last month that Medicare premiums will increase in January by a record amount in dollar terms of $11.60 per month.

Bush said medical decisions should be made by doctors and patients. However, the Medicare law he signed will, by the administration’s own estimate, move roughly 9 million more people into Medicare HMOs and other managed care plans.

Kerry’s plan would build on the existing employer-based health care system by offering tax breaks to businesses to offer health care. The Democrat would open up the federal employee health benefits program to all Americans, enabling them to the same kind of coverage that members of Congress get. The proposal also would put in place a drug prescription plan that permits Medicare to negotiate better drug prices for senior citizens.

On the issue of lawsuits against doctors, the president said Kerry has voted 10 times in his Senate career against reforms in the area of medical liability.

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“The effects of the litigation culture are real in Pennsylvania ... medical malpractice premiums are soaring,” Bush said.

The Bush campaign says limiting medical malpractice awards could save $60 billion to $108 billion annually in health care costs. The Kerry campaign rejects Bush’s numbers and favors limits on medical malpractice premium increases, sanctions for frivolous lawsuits, and nonbinding mediation in all states.

Kerry says more than half the states already cap non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases.

The Democrat began his day with a two-hour hunting trip in Springfield Township, Ohio. He said he bagged a goose and returned from the outing wearing a camouflage jacket and carrying a 12-gauge shotgun, but someone else carried the bird he said he shot.

“I’m too lazy,” Kerry joked. “I’m still giddy over the Red Sox. It was hard to focus.”

The Massachusetts senator was referring to Boston’s American League championship Wednesday night. He stayed up late cheering his hometown team onto victory, then got up for a 7 a.m. hunting trip at a supporter’s produce farm.

Kerry adviser Mike McCurry said it’s important in the final days of the campaign that voters “get a better sense of John Kerry, the guy.”

Slideshow: Today's political battleground That means the Democratic senator is spending some of the dwindling time before Election Day hunting, talking about his faith and watching his beloved Red Sox.

It’s all part of an effort to win over swing voters who may be open to voting against President Bush but aren’t sure they feel any connection with Kerry.

Vice President Dick Cheney, also campaigning in Ohio, tried to knock Kerry off stride. “I understand he bought a new camouflage jacket for the occasion which did make me wonder how regularly he does go goose hunting,” Cheney said. “It’s my personal opinion this new camo jacket is an October disguise in an effort to hide the fact that he votes against gun owners’ rights at every turn.”

At the later stop in Columbus, Kerry focused on his science theme at a campaign rally.  “The American people deserve a president who understands that when America invests in science and technology, we can build a stronger economy and create jobs for the 21st century,” he said. “But George Bush has literally ... turned his back on the spirit of exploration and discovery.”

Reeve’s widow, Dana, said her family has been grieving privately since her husband died Oct. 10. “My inclination would be to remain private for a good long while,” she said. “But I came here today in support of John Kerry because this is so important. This is what Chris wanted.”

Reeve had lived as a paraplegic since a riding accident in 1995. He had become an advocate for medical research and believed studying embryonic stem cells might unlock lifesaving cures and treatments, Dana Reeve said.

'Heart was full of hope'
“His heart was full of hope, and he imagined living in a world where politics would never get in the way of hope,” she said.

The Kerry campaign said Dana Reeve approached the Massachusetts senator about making what probably would be her only campaign appearance. Another Kerry supporter, former Vice President Al Gore, has been asked to campaign this weekend in Florida, where he is seen as a symbol of an election many Democrats believe the GOP stole from them.

In his remarks at the rally, Kerry said scientific innovation needs political support and that Bush, beholden to special interests, refuses to make investments that benefited everyone.

“On the other hand, he has an extreme political agenda that slows instead of advances science,” Kerry said.

In addition to stem cell research, Kerry wants to invest in manufacturing and biotechnology, spur automobile innovations and urge students to go into science with education benefits.

Kerry knew the “Superman” actor for about 15 years through family and activist connections. Reeve left him a long telephone message the day before he died, thanking him for campaigning on behalf of medical research.

His death has since reverberated on the campaign trail, as Kerry battles Bush over the ethics of stem cell research using embryos. Bush restricted federally funded research to lines already existing before his 2001 executive order, a decision criticized by some scientists and research advocates.

With a dozen days left before voters will pick the next president, there were these other developments:

  • Kerry and Bush were on even financial footing as they began the final month of the campaign, new reports showed. They each finished September with about $37 million left to spend on their general-election campaigns.
  • Bush had a one-point lead on Kerry in the latest Reuters/Zogby national tracking poll released Thursday. Bush led Kerry 46-45 percent, a statistical dead heat well within the poll’s margin of error. They were tied at 46 percent the previous two days.
  • In other polls, an ABC survey published Wednesday said Bush maintained a 5-point lead over Kerry, 51-46. A Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday showed Bush and Kerry neck and neck at 45 percent each. The survey also found that likely voters were split evenly, with 47 percent voicing a preference for Bush and 47 percent leaning toward Kerry. In an AP-Ipsos Public Affairs poll released Thursday, Kerry got support from 49 percent of those who said they were likely to vote, and Bush got 46 percent, within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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