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Kerry hits Bush on lost Ohio jobs

AUSTINTOWN, Ohio -- Senator John F. Kerry, putting his own twist on a favorite attack line of the Bush campaign, yesterday accused the president of doing a "flip-flop-flip" on steel tariffs, worsening the shortage of good-paying jobs here that has robbed voters of their dignity in this electoral battleground.

After visiting a picket line of steelworkers, Kerry raised his voice in anger during a town hall meeting with 500 voters as he spoke of more than 230,000 jobs lost in Ohio since President Bush took office.

"One worker told me he'd worked there for 30 years, but not quite enough to retire, not quite enough to live on if he did retire -- 30 years of work, folks, and you're locked out of the building," Kerry said. "You run out of your unemployment compensation -- and what happens when George Bush and the other folks had an opportunity to extend unemployment, to help people who were unemployed? They said no. They said no. They abandoned them."

While Bush took a day off from campaigning, his top aides spent most of yesterday playing defense -- not against Kerry's assault over job losses, but against a New York Times report that administration officials, in arguing for war to prevent a nuclear-armed Iraq, ignored some US intelligence evidence that cast doubt on Saddam Hussein's nuclear capabilities and ambitions.

Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, said she was aware of "a dispute" within the intelligence community over the possible uses of high-strength aluminum tubes that Hussein once tried to procure, but insisted that the CIA director at the time, George Tenet, and "the intelligence community as a whole" thought Hussein wanted to develop a nuclear weapons program with the tubes. Defending the administration's decision to invade Iraq, she said the tubes were just one piece of evidence that strongly suggested that Hussein was on the path to possessing nuclear weapons.

"When you are faced with an assessment that Saddam Hussein is reconstituting his nuclear weapons program, that he has by the end of the decade the probability of having a nuclear weapon . . . the tendency is always not to want to underestimate these programs," Rice said on the ABC news program "This Week."

White House communications director Dan Bartlett echoed Rice's defense on the CBS program "Face the Nation."

"Despite the fact that some had different opinions about the technical use of these, it was the director of the central intelligence and others who said, 'We believe this to be the case,' " Bartlett said.

Kerry, who launched a new television commercial Saturday night pointing up the Times report -- which was posted on the newspaper's website Saturday -- hit Bush on the intelligence dispute in Ohio as well. Kerry said it "raises serious questions about whether or not the administration was open and honest in making the case for war in Iraq."

"These are the questions that the president must face," Kerry added. "These are the questions the president has to answer fully to the American people and the troops."

For the most part, Kerry stuck to his critique of Bush's jobs record at the town hall meeting, which reached an emotional high point when one striking steelworker, Ray Raschilla Jr., joined Kerry on the stage and talked about his daughter's homecoming dance this fall to dramatize the struggle in the economically depressed -- and vote-rich -- Mahoning Valley region.

"She was so excited -- she said, 'Dad I'm going to my first homecoming.' I said, 'Great.' . . . I looked at her and I said, 'Well, what are you going to do for a dress?' And she said, 'Well, Dad, I know you're out of work -- my mom and grandma took care of it,' " Raschilla said. Then he continued: "That was rough on me. That was probably the toughest day of my life. She knew I couldn't help her."

The audience applauded, and Kerry hugged Raschilla tightly.

Then the Democratic nominee pivoted off the steelworker's story to link the hard times in the region with Bush's support of income-tax cuts for people earning more than $200,000 a year.

"What's the value system that makes a choice that says 500,000 kids lose their after-school programs, 365,000 kids lose child care, 500,000 veterans lose access to the VA? . . . People like Ray can't get insurance and can't get unemployment extended, but these people are down there fighting with everything they've got to give the wealthiest people in the country a permanent tax break," Kerry said.

"Not in my America!" Kerry said to applause. "That's wrong."

Kerry also seized on the "flip-flop" phrase favored by the Bush campaign, but which neither Bush nor Kerry tends to use, to describe the steel tariffs that Bush imposed early in his term to aid the US industry, then lifted before expected.

"I don't know, but I think that if you're against tariffs, and then you put tariffs in place, and then you take them off, that's just sort of a flip-flop-flip," Kerry said.

In a jab at Bush's remarks during the debate regarding the tasks of the presidency, Kerry said to laughter: "I welcome hard work, I like hard work."

Speaking at a predominantly black church in Cleveland, Kerry said his campaign would hold a news conference tomorrow announcing a team of attorneys "of all color and all mix" who will try to prevent voter intimidation or ballot irregularities that some reported in the 2000 election.

Bush aides say the president plans to pick up the pace on domestic issues -- including during a trip to Iowa to sign his fourth tax cut into law -- in advance of the second presidential debate Friday night, which will focus on domestic and foreign policy issues.

The Bush campaign said the president would attack Kerry on foreign policy and domestic issues early this week. "He will continue to draw a contrast," said Reed Dickens, a campaign spokesman. "We'll shift the focus more on domestic issues leading up to the second debate. John Kerry wants to raise taxes and put health care under the control of bureaucrats, and the president want to empower individuals."

In a sign that the debate last Thursday has had an impact on the race, a new CNN/ USA Today/ Gallup poll indicated that Bush and Kerry were tied at 49 percent support among likely voters surveyed, with independent Ralph Nader at 1 percent. A week ago, Bush led 52 percent to 44 percent, with Nader at 3 percent. The poll's margin of error was 4 percentage points.

Karl Rove, a senior political adviser to Bush, said in an interview Saturday night that he did not expect the debate last Thursday to change the poll results substantially. Still, he told reporters that he expects Kerry to draw closer to Bush in the coming days because of how closely the race is being fought in many battleground states.

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com. Rick Klein can be reached at rklein@globe.com.

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