SIOUX CITY, Iowa - Sen. John Kerry spent Wednesday rallying voters in rural communities, far from the traditionally Democratic urban bastions of Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, hoping to convince folks in the heartland that he is in step with their values and will look out for their interests.
Kerry told a roaring crowd outside Sioux City that he would hold a "rural summit" during the first 100 days of his administration. In Rochester, Minn., he promised to expand stem cell research and allow Americans to import cheaper prescription drugs from neighboring Canada.
At an arena in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he stood before a banner bedecked with corn and thanked the state for giving him the Democratic nomination last spring. "I'm almost a resident, folks," he said. "I spent 90 days crisscrossing Iowa. I've been in your bars, I've been in your VFW halls, I've been in your bowling alleys."
After Iowa and Minnesota Wednesday, Kerry will campaign at similar venues today in Ohio and Wisconsin. Polls show all four states too close to call.
North of Sioux City, at the packed gym at North High School, he criticized President Bush for giving tax breaks to large agribusinesses "at the expense of small family farmers." He promised to hold a rural summit in Ames, Iowa, within 100 days of his election "to focus on the special challenges facing family farmers and small-town Americans," and in Cedar Rapids discussed the need for better Internet access and schools in rural communities.
"We're going to pull together a real agenda, we'll put it down on paper, we'll put it in writing, and you can measure me" on it, he said.
In Rochester, home to the Mayo Clinic, Kerry told supporters: "I will be a president who believes in science."
The federal ban on importing prescription drugs from Canada is unpopular in Minnesota, and he hit Bush for keeping it.
"Can you get over these guys? They're for a free market until it applies to their campaign contributors and close friends, and then they want to legislate a monopoly," Kerry said to cheers.
The fire marshal closed the doors to the Mayo Civic Center when the attendance hit 7,500, leaving long lines of supporters outside in the rain. It was an impressive turnout for Kerry in a conservative part of the state; Bush drew fewer people when he last visited here.
Robert Tloudan, 77, a Norwegian bachelor farmer from over toward Viola, about 7 miles away, said he blames Bush for the high cost of medicine and other economic troubles facing fellow farmers. He put up 1,700 bales of hay himself this summer, and he said things are tight.
"I'm not an educated person, but you don't need to be educated to know something," said Tloudan, who attended the Kerry rally in gray-brown overalls and a red windbreaker. His hands are hard. "Things just keep getting worse. Yep."
He added that he and seven of his brothers served in the Army, some in Korea and some in World War II, but Bush "should have never gone over there to Iraq, and he went over there anyway."
Kerry started the tour Wednesday morning in Sioux City, where the rich, vaguely unpleasant smell from a massive pork-processing plant permeates the town.
"There ya' go, there it is," said Rick Pennell, 47, taking a deep breath. "That's about what Sioux City is based on."
Pennell is a Sioux City native, a crew cut cab driver who works 12 hour days. He didn't feel moved to vote when Al Gore edged Bush by one point in Iowa, but with the economy sagging, he plans to vote for Kerry.
"Kerry seems to be, oh, a little more promising than Bush has been," he said. "Bush has lost a lot of jobs."
With his dark suit, patriarchal mien and flinty New England roots, Kerry is not a natural for the rural Midwest. Bush has rich New England roots, too, but his Texas ranch, Texas twang and cowboy boots hide them better.
Polls, including one this week by the Los Angeles Times, consistently show Kerry trailing the president among rural voters, often by a margin of 20 percent.