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Thousands gather for Kerry appearance in Cloquet
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John Kerry speaks in downtown Cloquet (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry launched a three-day bus tour of the Upper Midwest with a stop in Cloquet on Friday. Kerry is using the trip to focus on issues of particular concern to rural America. Kerry delivered a wide-ranging and relatively long speech, railing on the Bush administration and outlining several of his proposals for the nation.

Cloquet, Minn. — John Kerry kicked off his bus tour in downtown Cloquet, choosing a site in the small northeastern Minnesota town where Main Street meets a city park. It was a made-for-TV setting. Cloquet is celebrating its centennial this Fourth of July weekend and is decked out, making it an all-American, picturesque backdrop for a campaign address.

Several thousand people waving Kerry signs, flags with red, white, and blue banners everywhere.

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Image Downtown Cloquet

"And I can't tell you how excited I am to kick off our celebration of America right here in northeast Minnesota in the heartland. Thank you for being here," Kerry said.

Kerry's "Celebrating the Spirit of America" bus tour is making its way south through western Wisconsin and into northern Iowa.

"We're going to visit towns, we're going to visit farms, we're going to march in parades, we're going to eat BBQ , we're going to play a little baseball and we're going to celebrate who we are," he said.

The campaign swing is part of a larger Kerry campaign effort to cut into President George Bush's lead among rural voters.

A recently released Center for Rural Strategies poll gave Bush a 9-point lead over Kerry, 51 percent to 42 percent. In polling that the group did at the beginning of the year, Bush had a 15-point lead. Kerry campaign officials say they don't expect they'll somehow end up with a majority of support among rural voters by election day, but they hope to further cut into Bush's rural base.

In line with that strategy, Kerry talked a lot about issues of particular importance to rural voters. He said there is not enough competition in agri-business and that the government should stop subsidizing large farm operations in favor of helping family farms.

"Family farmers have been going backwards. We've been losing family farms for the last 20 years while the subsidies go to the big people at the expense of those who need it and deserve it. We can do better and we will do better than that," Kerry said.

He said trade policy could be improved to help farmers, saying if he's president, he'll enforce rules of the nation's trade agreements and demand that trading partners play on a level field in the area of labor rights and environmental protection.

He also pledged to bring more technology to small towns. "I believe that broadband needs to reach all of rural America so that small businesses can compete against any other small business anywhere in the world. You can't expect America to grow if, in the digital age, we have pockets that are still living in the dark."

Further reaching out to rural Americans, Kerry talked about investing more in bio-fuels like ethanol, saying increasing ag-based energy production would not only help farmers, it would also help the United States become less dependent on foreign oil.

"We can grow our way out of energy dependence and we need to do this, not just putting our minds to work but putting our genius to work. That's what we've always done. We're going to do this because no young American in uniform should ever be held hostage to America's dependence on oil in the Middle East that's what we're going to do."

Kerry also touched on several broader issues during his 40-minute speech, calling for more investment in education and an end to any government policy that encourages U.S. companies to expand outside of the country. He also criticized the Bush administration for not fully funding Veterans Affairs programs and for not doing more to address the growing cost of health care.

Just a few supporters of President Bush showed up in Cloquet to counter the Kerry rally.

Earlier, in Duluth, about 100 people attended a waffle breakfast put together by Bush supporters to criticize Kerry for changing views on some issues.

Vietnam and Desert Storm veteran Joe Repya, the chair of Minnesota Retired Vets for President Bush, and a Minnesota delegate to the GOP national convention, called Kerry's record on defense "shameful."

"He voted against the Iraq war, after he voted for then Iraq war and you've heard him out of his own mouth , well 'I voted against it, after I voted for it.' Well my daughter in college would say, 'Duh. Does he think we're stupid of something?'"

In Cloquet Kerry ended his speech calling on his audience to work for his election.

"We need to regain our values, our leadership, our respect in the world. Let America be America again. Let's go out and make it happen," he said.

Heading out of the event, Clarence Sharpe from nearby Esko said he fully supports Kerry's candidacy. Sharpe said he thought Kerry's proposals for rural America were right on, but what he likes most about the Democrat is his approach to foreign policy.

"I'm kind of concerned about the maverick philosophy of the Bush administration, getting us involved in wars that seemingly do not appear warranted. That's my big concern," according to Sharpe.

Kerry wraps up his bus tour Sunday evening in Cedar Rapids Iowa. Friday's was Kerry's fifth campaign stop in Minnesota.

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