By Bruce Schreiner
The Associated Press
LOUISVILLE - Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on Tuesday proposed a health plan he said should appeal to conservative Kentuckians.
The Massachusetts senator also supported a federal buyout of tobacco quotas - a cherished goal of Kentucky leaf growers - and criticized President Bush for running up budget deficits.
It was Kerry's first campaign visit to Kentucky, whose primary election is Tuesday. Bush carried the state by 15 points over Al Gore in 2000.
Bush led Kerry by 17 points in a statewide Bluegrass Poll published in February in the Courier-Journal. But there has been no independent polling since then, and Bush has been buffeted for weeks with soaring gasoline prices and bad news from Iraq.
Kerry toured a community-supported clinic in Louisville, then talked health care at a forum of business owners at Louisville Stoneware Co. He later raked in $750,000 at a fund raiser before leaving the state.
Kerry said his plan allows small-business owners to buy into the health plan available to members of Congress. He said he would propose tax credits for small businesses that covered low- and moderate-income employees. Participants could choose their doctors and tailor their health plans to their needs, he said.
Bruce Cohen, owner and president of BC Plumbing in Louisville, said his company's health-care costs have risen by 75 percent in five years.
To offset costs, employee deductibles, once $250, have risen to $2,500. Cohen said he pays three-fourths of his employees' health costs. Employees pick up the rest and have to pay to cover their families. One employee, Leo Lear, said he pays $400 to $500 a month to cover his wife and three children.
Kerry also said he would rescind some of Bush's tax cuts for people in higher income brackets, using the money instead to cover the cost of catastrophic illnesses.
State Republican chairman John McCarthy said it was Kerry's "first and presumably last visit" to Kentucky.
"The people of Kentucky know that President Bush is the only one who can keep our nation secure and keep us on the path to economic prosperity," McCarthy said in a statement.
Jack Richardson IV, chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, said Kerry was wasting his time in Kentucky.
"If he wants to spend a lot of time here, fine," he said. "It's not going to get him anywhere."
Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Ky., said Kerry needs to spend time and money in Kentucky to be competitive.
"Given George Bush's record, Kerry's chances ought to be good everywhere," Chandler said.
Kerry told reporters he supported a buyout of the Depression-era tobacco price support system. The legislation would pay tobacco growers to give up quotas, allotments dictating the size of their tobacco crops.
"I think they've been strung along for too long, and we have to get it done," Kerry said of tobacco farmers.
Meanwhile, Kerry claimed the administration's tax and spending policies at a time of growing national debt should offend conservatives.
"There is nothing conservative about this administration running up deficits as far as the eye can see, saddling our children with debt," Kerry said.
Kenton County Democratic Party chairman Nathan Smith of Fort Mitchell traveled to Louisville Tuesday for Kerry's speech.
Bush carried Kentucky by about 15 points over Al Gore four years ago. But Smith believes Kerry can close that gap and even win what has traditionally been a bellwether state.
Kentucky has gone with the winner in the presidential race every year since 1964. If Kerry can convince voters that he has the talent and ability to be president and Bush suffers the fallout from Iraq and the lingering effects of the recent economic downturn, the Democrats have a shot at taking Kentucky in November, Smith said.
"If he can stay competitive, Kerry has a good shot at winning Kentucky," said Smith, an executive with a manufactured home company based in Erlanger. "He has to continue to work hard. But with the problems we have in our country right now, people are getting very concerned with Bush and the job he is doing."
Patrick Crowley of the Enquirer contributed to this report.
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