By Howard Wilkinson
Enquirer staff writer
DAYTON, Ohio - Before a crowd of 15,000 in a park on the banks of the Great Miami River, Democrats John Kerry and John Edwards made it clear they plan to win the White House on issues a lot closer to home than Iraq.
"You claw, you work hard, you play by the rules and the big people walk away with all the rewards,'' a shirt-sleeved Kerry told the crowd Wednesday afternoon in RiverScape park. "This is not right. This will not continue in a Kerry administration.''
It was an economic message that turned Edwards, the North Carolina senator Kerry picked Tuesday as his running mate, into a primary campaign phenomenon. It is also one that Kerry hopes will jump-start his campaign.
And it was a message that the new Kerry-Edwards team - on the road for the first time - hopes will hit home in Dayton, a blue-collar city that has experienced decades of job loss and where the economic rebound touted by the Bush administration seems to be a mirage.
"This is the dream team,'' Kerry said Wednesday at the Dayton rally, which came after a mid-day event in Cleveland that drew about 12,500. "We have better ideas, better vision, a better sense of the difficulties in the lives of average Americans.''
Kerry paused. "And we have better hair.''
The sun-baked crowd roared with laughter. Many had been waiting for more than three hours for the Democratic ticket.
SunWatch, the re-creation of a prehistoric Indian village on the banks of the Great Miami in Dayton, also got a mention from the Democratic presidential candidate.
"Way back then, SunWatch village had a medicine man going from family to family in the village,'' Kerry said. "Which means that SunWatch had a better health-care plan than this administration.
After an introduction from Ohio's most popular Democrat, former Sen. John Glenn, the principals of the campaign took their turns speaking - Teresa Heinz Kerry, the candidate's wife; Elizabeth Edwards, wife of the running mate; then Kerry; and, finally, the first-term senator who was clearly the star of the show, Edwards.
Edwards, too, talked about jobs and economic uncertainty.
"You can't save any money. It takes every dime to pay your bills, and you get burdened by debt,'' said Edwards, as heads nodded throughout the crowd.
"If there's a layoff or illness in the family, you go right over the cliff. This is wrong. We will change that for hard-working American families.''
About 100 Bush supporters stood outside the barricades of RiverScape on Wednesday afternoon, waving Bush-Cheney signs that the Democratic candidates could easily see from the podium.
Republicans officials kept up the criticism of the Kerry-Edwards ticket as inexperienced and liberal in telephone conference calls with reporters and in faxed statements.
In a statement, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said: "In my opinion, it's probably the least-qualified ticket from a management point of view in recent history.''
Early Wednesday morning, campaign volunteers walked the streets of downtown Dayton passing out free tickets to the event.
The Montgomery County Democratic Party distributed thousands of tickets to the campaign rally, which had been scheduled before Kerry picked his running mate.
That Kerry and Edwards would spend their first day as running mates in Ohio emphasized the importance of the state's 20 electoral votes.
The Kerry campaign looks at Dayton as a key within a key - a city of independent-minded "swing'' voters who usually cast their votes on such pocketbook issues as jobs, health care, the cost of putting kids through college. These voters can turn a very close statewide election. And it is a city that once prided itself on its smokestack industries full of lunch-bucket carrying workers but that is now losing manufacturing jobs at the rate of 1,800 a year.
Montgomery County, where Dayton is the seat, is not particularly predictable when it comes to presidential politics.
Al Gore beat George Bush by 4,805 votes out of 230,987 cast in 2000. The county went for Bill Clinton by substantial margins in 1992 and 1996, but gave its votes to George H.W. Bush in 1988 and Ronald Reagan in 1984.
What the Kerry campaign is hoping is that there are thousands more voters in Dayton and the Miami Valley like Tony and Ellen Mantle.
The family depended on Mrs. Mantle's job as a line leader at a plant that made auto parts for their health insurance and other benefits. Then, a few months ago, Mrs. Mantle went to work one day and learned that her job and dozens of others were moving to Mexico.
"All of a sudden, we had no health insurance and we don't know whether or not we are going to lose our house,'' Mantle said. "That's when I went down to Democratic headquarters and volunteered for Kerry.''
Not all of Dayton was focused on the presidential campaign Wednesday.
At the noon hour, as Kerry volunteers put the finishing touches on the RiverScape event site, downtown office workers poured out of office towers and headed for the food vendors' carts on Courthouse Square, where a jazz guitarist entertained the lunch crowd.
"I saw that Kerry was coming with Edwards, but I can't go up there,'' said 27-year-old Sandy Albright, an office worker in a downtown bank. "Some of us have to work.''
Albright said she is leaning toward Kerry and likes Edwards - "What I've seen of him.''
"I probably won't make up my mind for sure until later,'' Albright said. "There's plenty of time.''
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