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Kerry revives '92 election theme to attack Bush

Average citizens neglected, he says

WASHINGTON -- Resurrecting a theme that helped scuttle the first President Bush's reelection hopes in 1992, Senator John F. Kerry contended yesterday that the current incumbent is unresponsive to the concerns of average Americans, from drivers and summer vacationers worried about gas-pump prices to older adults struggling with layoffs and health care premiums.

Kerry also offered some revealing comments about his candidacy and his fight for the 2004 nomination during a flight from Oregon to Washington, D.C., yesterday with former rival Howard Dean. In a mostly agreeable, occasionally revealing 55-minute review of the political season so far, the two men spoke with reporters at length for the first time together, with Kerry acknowledging that Dean ''took over the conversation" during the fight for the 2004 Democratic nomination, and Dean saying he came to admire Kerry for beating him in the Iowa caucuses.

The presumed Democratic nominee said the once-bitter rivals had held fairly similar political positions during the primary battle and were often ''struggling to convince [reporters] there were" differences so one would appeal to voters more than the other.

''I think we were saying a lot of similar things, the fact is, but I think Howard, as we all know, was the one who broke through [with voters] first in the way that took over the conversation," Kerry said. Dean had led Kerry for months in the polls. Asked by a reporter whether Dean had made him a better candidate, Kerry said, ''I think he did, but I think the whole process does."

Dean said he enjoyed campaigning on behalf of Kerry, and he was unusually circumspect in declining to dissect Kerry's abilities as a candidate.

''I think there really is kind of a fraternity-sorority to doing all this. It wasn't hard for me at all to put aside" the primary season tensions, said the former Vermont governor. ''I admire John Kerry for some of the stuff he did. I certainly admire him" for the convincing Iowa victory. At that point, Kerry raised his hand, and he and Dean shared a high-five.

Before the flight, Kerry used a visit to a Portland, Ore., job training center to tie Bush to voters' woes about gasoline prices, although the Democrat had no new ideas to stoke the debate. With the average cost of gasoline shooting past $2 a gallon, Kerry repeated his past calls for Bush to pressure OPEC for more oil and to stop filling the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve and instead steer fuel to the pump.

''Where's the president? Where is the call for OPEC to start producing? Where is the president who, when he was campaigning for president, said in New Hampshire what we need is a president who jawbones OPEC to lower those gas prices? Well, I haven't seen any jawboning, have you?" Kerry asked an audience, some of whom responded, ''No."

Bush's only action was making ''sweetheart deals with Saudi Arabia," Kerry said; he did not provide details, but in the past has decried reports that the Saudi ambassador to the US had indicated that the nation would increase production before the election this fall.

Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman, said Kerry's proposals were at odds with his Senate record of opposing the president's recent energy bill, which Republicans say would have led to lower costs for consumers, and occasionally supporting higher gas taxes several years ago.

''Four years ago John Kerry said that manipulating the [Strategic Petroleum Reserve] was irrelevant to lowering gas prices," Schmidt said. ''He was right then and is playing politics now."

Kerry also expressed concern about ageism in the workplace and about racial divisions in the US, although he rejected a call by one voter to support reparations for slavery.

The tone of yesterday's event was set by three Oregonians who have lost good jobs and now face uncertain futures. One, a 53-year-old man, said he experienced ''a personal 9/11" when he lost a $102,000 job in high tech and took a job paying $7 an hour. Kerry sought to rally them to his side by explaining how he could help, such as telling a 58-year-old woman that he would relieve her health care worries by letting her buy into Medicare.

Seated on stools with Dean and the three middle-aged workers looking for better jobs, Kerry said he believed there was ''a prejudice that's in the system" when it came to employers refusing to hire well-qualified yet older Americans. One of those beside Kerry, Mitch Freifeld, described losing his six-figure salary and shouldering $700-a-month health insurance payments for him and his wife.

''There's no real health care for us on the cusp" of Medicare, he said. ''I'm too young to die and too old to rock and roll."

Kerry's rhetoric echoed Bill Clinton's argument 12 years ago that George H.W. Bush, with his many wealthy friends, did not grasp the problems of most voters.

''Too many people have been sort of cast aside -- no health insurance, no ability to get child care for their kids, no ability to find a job that fits what they were educated for, no ability to get ahead even though they're working harder," the senator told the audience of about 150.

Drawing contrasts with Bush, Kerry portrayed himself as a leader willing to take quick action to help working Americans, and said as president he would immediately rewrite the White House's 2005 budget to propose an increase in the minimum wage; extend unemployment benefits; and include a new health insurance initiative to cover all children, allow people over 55 to buy into Medicare, and give the federal government responsibility for catastrophic care, which Kerry said would lower premiums by an average of $1,000.

In response to one audience member's call for US reparations for slavery, Kerry said that he opposed such a policy but that as president, would meet with a leading advocate for reparations, Representative John Conyers Jr., to discuss ways to ''heal America's wounds in the past if they exist."

Patrick Healy can be reached at 

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