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Inside Politics

Kerry vows to halt economic 'squeeze'

Candidate calls for middle-class tax cuts, better jobs

• Poll: Edwards favored as running mate
John F. Kerry
George W. Bush

ATLANTIC CITY, New Jersey (CNN) -- Sen. John Kerry on Tuesday promised to end the "middle-class squeeze" he blamed on President Bush's economic policies, telling union members they deserve a government that shares their values of "hard work, service and caring for one another."

A long-sputtering economy has picked up steam in recent months, with nearly 950,000 new jobs created since March, according to U.S. government figures.

But Kerry said the jobs being created pay less than those lost in the recent recession, while costs such as health insurance, college tuition and child care have gone up.

"America needs a president who fights for your job as hard as he fights for his own," the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said. "I have a plan to put and to keep good-paying jobs right here in America, in the heart of our economy. And when I am president, let me tell you, American taxpayers will never again subsidize the loss of their own jobs in this country."

The senator's speech to a New Jersey AFL-CIO conference was the first in a series of economic addresses he plans this week.

The Massachusetts Democrat said he could cut taxes on the middle class while rolling back the Bush tax cuts on people earning more than $200,000 a year, and reduce the budget deficit -- now approaching $500 billion -- in half while boosting spending on education and health care.

"We did it before," he said, referring to the Clinton administration's 1993 economic package. "We restored fiscal responsibility in the 1990s. We cut the deficit. We protected Social Security, and we created 23 million new jobs -- the longest period of prosperity in our nation's history -- and together we can do it again."

President Bush's re-election campaign said the senator is trying to "talk down" an economic rebound that has resulted in the creation of 1.4 million jobs since August.

"Kerry's political attacks are not supported by reality, which shows rising employment and higher wages, and his policies -- higher taxes, increased regulation and bigger government -- would move America backward," campaign manager Ken Mehlman said in a statement.

Mehlman said Kerry's criticism illustrates "the clear choice Americans face in November between progress and growth and the politics of pessimism."

Kerry's remarks in Atlantic City marked his return to the campaign trail after a week off as the nation marked the death of former President Reagan.

New Jersey voted solidly for Democrats in the 2000 presidential race, but a Quinnipiac University poll in May showed Kerry leading Bush in the state by a margin of 3 percentage points, 47 percent to 44 percent.

Kerry said the U.S. tax code is now 17,000 pages long. He asked the audience, "Any of you got your own page?"

"Enron got its own page. Exxon's got its own page. Looks to me like Halliburton got its own chapter," he said, referring to the oilfield service company once led by Vice President Dick Cheney.

"I just believe it's wrong for middle-class Americans to be saddled with endless debt and deficits while the most fortunate among us walk away with billions in tax cuts."

Kerry said he would push to extend health-care benefits to more Americans, saying the costs of insurance premiums are hindering job growth. He said he would push for a "real" prescription drug benefit for Medicare, the government's health-care program for people 65 and older. (In December, Bush signed into law an overhaul of Medicare. The prescription drug benefit portion of the law does not go into effect until 2006. Until then, Medicare has approved a temporary discount card program.)

"In a Kerry administration, we will stop being the only advanced nation in the world which fails to understand that health care is not a privilege for the elected and the connected and the wealthy, it is a right for every American," he said.

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