Kerry bids to harness 'power of the land'

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The Independent US

President George Bush and his challenger, John Kerry, are engaged in a pressing battle to win the backing of rural voters, convinced their support is crucial to winning the White House.

President George Bush and his challenger, John Kerry, are engaged in a pressing battle to win the backing of rural voters, convinced their support is crucial to winning the White House.

On a three-day tour through the Midwest, Mr Kerry, the Massachusetts senator, spent the weekend trying to persuade farmers his New England roots did not prevent him from recognising the problems they faced.

"Look at the power of that land. You can just feel it. You see it," he told about 100 farmers in a barn at a family-owned dairy farm in Wisconsin on Saturday. "I know what you love. I know why you're here. It's the way that you feel about this."

He said: "this kid from the East" had an aunt and uncle who lived on a dairy farm that he visited often when he was young. "I learnt my first cuss word sitting on a tractor from the guy who was driving it," he said. "And I learnt as a kid what it was like to look in back of me, and see those rows, and see that pattern, and feel the sense of accomplishment. And end up dusty and dirty, tired but feeling great."

Mr Kerry's rural makeover on his Independence Day weekend bus trip through Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa was aimed at trying to cut into support for Mr Bush in areas that could help tip the balance in several battleground states in November.

Four years ago Mr Bush won 59 per cent of rural votes compared with 37 per cent for Al Gore. There is a belief the king makers this time around may be those living in the countryside. In recent elections, campaigners have focused on suburbia but Democrats say that economic troubles and the war in Iraq have taken a disproportionate toll on rural communities and believe that voting will be much closer in this election. It may not be impossible to sway the rural lobby: Bill Clinton held his own among rural voters in both 1992 and 1996.

But Republicans are not ready to give up on these potentially crucial votes. Before Mr Kerry left on his three-day tour, Republicans issued a news release called "Top 10 Reasons Why John Kerry Is Wrong for Rural America". Coming in at number one was Mr Kerry's opposition to Mr Bush's tax cuts, while number 4 was his "F" rating from the National Rifle Association.

At the same time, Vice-President Dick Cheney set off on his own weekend bus tour, through Ohio, West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.

Despite the efforts of Mr Kerry to persuade rural voters he is one of them - hence the rugged blue jeans and yellow hiking boots he wore at the weekend - Republicans claim they are confident rural voters will ultimately make the same decision they did four years ago. They say Mr Bush shares their values on key issues such as abortion and gun rights.

Marc Racicot, Mr Bush's campaign chairman, said that, in Congress, Mr Kerry had voted against the interests of rural Americans. "John Kerry's campaign trail amnesia is either a disconcerting departure from his record and votes or a wilful effort to deceive the voters of America's heartland," he added.

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