Onalaska, Wis. and Minneapolis, Minn. — President Bush focused on the economy during his campaign stop in Onalaska, a small community outside of La Crosse. Positioned in front of a giant banner with the slogan, "Balancing Your Family Budget," Bush talked about tax cuts and unemployment figures. He says he needs four more years in office to continue to grow the economy.
"This campaign offers a clear choice when it comes to the economy and our vision for how to create jobs," Bush said. "My policies support and strengthen small businesses, which are creating the most new jobs in America."
Bush says small businesses are the key to keeping the economy afloat. He says his challenger, Democrat John Kerry, would raise taxes -- hurting small businesses and their ability to continue to expand.
The economy is considered a key issue in this part of Wisconsin, where per capita incomes fall short of the state average. More than 5,000 people attended the rally in a sweltering community center. They chanted and clapped their hands in support as the president talked about an economy on the mend.
It's no surprise Bush continues to return to the bluff-rimmed Coulee Valley. The area cost him the state back in the 2000 election.
"A lot of people, including Republicans, think western Wisconsin -- as being a little more two-party versus some parts of Wisconsin -- became the margin of victory in that election," says political scientist Joe Heim from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. "The president's people vowed to turn that around this year -- undo what they lost nearly four years ago."
But Heim says recent polls conducted around the region indicate the president still needs to make some major inroads.
"If there's been a trend in here recently in the last few weeks, it's been towards Kerry," Heim says. "I think one of the reasons the president would be coming back here is to stem that trend."
Heim estimates between 10 and 12 percent of eligible voters in communities around La Crosse are considered undecided.
As President Bush delivered his standard stump speech, he openly appealed to new voters. He even asked Democrats to cross party lines.
"If you believe America should lead with strength, confidence, and resolve, I would be honored to have your support and I am asking for your vote," said Bush.
Most attending the rally in Onalaska were clearly die-hard supporters, like Catherine Lyne. She says there's a reason the president keeps coming back.
"Obviously I think the state is in trouble. It's pretty even, isn't it? To me he sounded very upbeat. I'm glad I came," said Lyne.
Sen. Kerry also campaigned in Wisconsin today. He told a crowd in Green Bay the president hid bad decisions and raised the specter of bad news still to be revealed.
Kerry said a stream of bad news coming out of Iraq showed the Bush administration is glossing over the reality of the situation there.
"Mr. President, what else are you being silent about? What else are you keeping from the American people?" Kerry said. The Massachusetts senator pressed his case that Bush has bungled and misled on the Iraq war and national security crises generally.
"When the president is faced with the consequences of his own bad decisions, he doesn't confront them, he tries to hide them," Kerry said. "The truth is, President Bush isn't leveling with the American people about why we went to war, how the war is going, or what he is doing to put Iraq on track."
And Kerry broadened the attack to declare, "Just as he has been warned about his mistakes in Iraq, George Bush has been warned time and time again about the vulnerability of our homeland security."
Kerry said he would spend an additional $60 billion over 10 years on homeland security, using the money to screen cargo for nuclear materials at ports and borders, add border patrol agents and more. In a television interview aired Tuesday, Bush said he didn't oppose civil unions for same-sex couples even though the Republican Party platform opposes them. However, he supports banning gay marriage through a constitutional amendment.
"I don't think we should deny people rights to a civil union, a legal arrangement, if that's what a state chooses to do so," Bush said on "Good Morning America" on ABC. "I view the definition of marriage different from legal arrangements that enable people to have rights."
Tuesday was a four-state day for Kerry, traveling more than 3,000 miles from Green Bay to Las Vegas, to Albuquerque, N.M., and then Sioux City, Iowa.
NADER IN NORTHFIELD
Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader made another campaign swing through Minnesota Tuesday night, speaking to several hundred supporters at St. Olaf College in Northfield. Nader minced no words in criticizing Democrats and Republicans alike for their acceptance of corporate financial assistance. Nader won just over five percent of the vote in Minnesota four years ago, but this cycle he's struggled to find even one or two percent support.
Nader says Democratic nominee John Kerry seemed to regard the presidential contest as a simple race for money. "The money is not with regular people," he said. "The money is with the well-heeled drug company lobbyists and thousands of political action committees all geared, by their very name, to target the legislators with what they want in return for their $5000 checks, etc."
Nader also criticized Democrats and their allies for waging state-by-state legal challenges that have kept him off the ballot in several key states. Nader will appear on the ballot next week in only 34 states plus the District of Columbia. That total includes Minnesota. Nader presented a withering critique of President George Bush's record, suggesting that the war in Iraq and the frequent warnings about international terrorism were meant to scare Americans into compliance with the president's agenda.
"Maybe terrorism is being exaggerated because it's a great mechanism for his re-election, because it can distract attention from the necessities of the American people that he's not very good at responding to, because maybe it chills out the Democratic Party and stifles dissent," he said.
The crowd was largely receptive, although there were clearly some Kerry supporters in the crowd who fear Nader's campaign could divert support away from the Democrats and provide Bush enough breathing room to win re-election.
Most Nader supporters dismiss that claim, arguing they'd reject a Kerry candidacy with or without Nader's presence. But the choice between Kerry and Nader is nonetheless a dilemma for some voters.
DFL state party chair Mike Erlandson says that, despite Nader's protestations, Kerry embodies many of the progressive values Nader has championed.
"You'll see that he has fought on the very issues that Ralph Nader has centered his career around," Erlandson said.
EDWARDS CAMPAIGNS AT U OF M
Democratic vice presidential hopeful John Edwards told young people at the University of Minnesota on Tuesday morning that the election is in their hands.
The North Carolina senator spoke at a rally of about 2,000 people. Edwards attacked the Bush administration on Iraq, the economy and health care. He said young people can help win the election for the Kerry-Edwards ticket. He cited the comments of a national pollster who was asked how to predict the outcome on Election Day.
"He said, 'If you drive by polling places, and first, there are long lines, and second, there are a lot of young people in those lines, John Kerry will be the next president of the United States,'" Edwards said.
He also made a direct appeal to students concerned about rising tuition.
"We want to say to young people, give us two years of public service -- service to your community, your state or your country -- and we'll give you four years of college tuition in return," Edwards said.
This is Edwards' third campaign stop in Minnesota this month, and he returns to the state Thursday. Edwards was joined at the rally by actor Ashton Kutcher and musician Jeff Tweedy from the rock band Wilco.
Kutcher told the crowd that he voted for Bush in 2000, but says Bush doesn't represent him. College Republicans who gathered outside the rally said sending celebrities like Kutcher to college campuses won't distract young voters from Kerry's record.
The candidate visits will continue through the rest of the campaign. Kerry is expected to visit Rochester on Wednesday. Sen. Edwards will be in Duluth on Thursday, while Vice President Dick Cheney visits International Falls on Thursday. There's speculation the president may also return to Minnesota again this week.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)