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Kerry campaign goes after undecideds
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Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry talks about health care and other issues at a town hall meeting in Anoka, Minnesota Thursday morning. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on Thursday laid out his plans for addressing the increasing cost of health care at a forum at Anoka Technical College. But health care wasn't the only issue on the minds of the audience. Kerry's scheduled 45-minute appearance expanded to nearly two hours as he tackled questions that veered well beyond the topic of the day.

Anoka, Minn. — Unlike the larger campaign rallies that John Kerry has held in the state this year, just a little more than 300 people took part in the town hall meeting at Anoka Technical College. The Kerry campaign says many of the people in the audience were undecided voters identified by staffers.

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Image Dust-up at the fair

For 40 minutes or so Kerry kept the stage for himself. He promised his first legislative push would involve health care reform, through a series of measures he says would make health insurance more widely available and more affordable: tax breaks for businesses that provide employees health insurance, guaranteed health insurance for all children and less expensive prescription drugs through drug re-importation.

"In fact we scheduled this meeting here today on a Thursday so it wouldn't interfere with your weekend trip to Canada to buy prescription drugs,"he quipped.

It would cost, by some estimates, as much as $800 billion over 10 years to implement Kerry's plan for health care. The candidate says he'd pay for that largely by rolling back tax cuts for higher income people.

"If we're going to have prescription drugs that are affordable, then we have to make wise choices and my choice is that we roll back to the place it was under Bill Clinton, where a lot of people got rich and took care of themselves, we roll back that unaffordable, unwise tax cut for the wealthiest people in the country earning more than $200,000 a year and make the choice to invest in lower health care, schools education, jobs a stronger America right here at home and deficit reduction. That's the choice," he said.

Kerry spent most of his time fielding questions from the crowd, seated just several rows deep on all sides of Kerry. For nearly an hour the senator casually worked the room with a wireless microphone, his sleeves rolled up and wearing no tie.

Among the numerous questions? What makes you think you can reform health care when President Bill Clinton failed a decade ago. Kerry answered saying his plan would not create a big bureaucracy and would instead simply make it easier for businesses pay for insurance. With the cost of insurance rising so rapidly, Kerry confidently predicted he can bring consensus on a health care deal.

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.
- John Kerry

"I believe we can build a real majority of Republicans and Democrats of people of good mind who want to come together and make sense out of America's health care system because it's in crisis and we're going to have a lot of businesses as allies in this because businesses are getting crushed," he said.

Kerry told the group that some of the nation's companies take jobs offshore because of the high cost of health care in the U.S.

Another questioner asked exactly what a President Kerry would do about Iraq.

"Yes I have a plan," he said. "My plan is to have an international conference, almost immediately, co-chaired by Europeans and Arab nations, bring people to the table, create a high commissioner position and recognize what we need to do to make a change and I believe this very deeply from the things that have come to me through colleagues of mine in the Senate who've traveled abroad, business people who've traveled abroad, that the world needs a president with new credibility, with a fresh start who didn't bring us in there, who has the ability to bring people to a different place to get us out of there and that's what I will do."

In the audience was Lisa Lund, who says she has yet to decide which candidate to vote for. She says, though, she's leaning toward Kerry.

"I think they billed this as a medical, kind of health care and I work in the health care field but actually I thought the comments about international relations and that aspect of being president were a lot more important than the health care stuff today. So I was pretty impressed with him," she said.

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Image Kerry and a corn dog

Prior to Kerry's forum at Anoka Technical College, the Republican Party of Minnesota was out at the State Fair mocking the Democrat and calling him a "waffler" on the issues.

"Stop by and get your John Kerry flip-flop-on-a-stick. Guaranteed to give you more indigestion than a deep fried Twinkie on a stick," urged Randy Wanke, a spokesman for the Minnesota GOP.

"What we're to do today is just to have a little bit of fun at the fair and also at the same time highlight the fact that John Kerry has a record of flip-flops. He voted to send troops to Iraq and yet voted against the $87 billion to help fight the war on terror," he said.

Kerry has explained his "no" vote on last fall's supplemental appropriation as a protest vote against the way the Bush administration was handling the war against Iraq.

Kerry later stopped by the fair looking for votes on the way to the airport and his next campaign swing through California.

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Image Leaning toward Kerry

In Anoka the issue of Kerry changing positions also came up during the candidate's question-and-answer session.

"There are two main negative themes in the ads right now. One if that you waffle on the issues and the other one is that you're not telling the truth in Vietnam. Do you waffle on the issues? Are you telling the truth in Vietnam?" one questioner asked.

"I am absolutely telling you the God's honest truth about what happened and what took place over there as are the other people who laid it out correctly over the last days," Kerry replied. "With respect to the ... waffling... look, let me just give it to you very quickly. Here are the three or four things they say that I have quote, 'waffled on.' One is on NAFTA. Well I did vote for NAFTA, but I criticize it today the way it's applied because there are three provisions in NAFTA which are enforceable about labor standards and they ought to be enforced and it's not waffling to say that something that you voted for that they're not doing properly, ought to be done properly. It's just 'No Child Left Behind.' I just told you, I think we ought to fix it. It ought to be applied in the right way. But I told you up front that I think we have to move in that direction and do those standards.

Kerry accused Republicans of trying to run a smear campaign rather than taking on the competition for the White House with direct debate on the issues. And Kerry made this direct appeal to President George W. Bush.

"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. Let's go out to the American people. Let's spend one week on health care and the president and I can meet somewhere we can have a discussion, a debate, we could stand up, share our thoughts about how are we going to deal with health care. Then we could do it about education and how we're going to deal with education. Then we could do it on national security and how we're going to make America strong. Then we could do it on the environment and how we're going to protect the environment. I'm prepared to do that."

In response, the Bush-Cheney campaign said there would be plenty of time for discussion with Kerry during the three scheduled presidential debates, the first of which will be held at the end of next month.

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