Kerry's Southern Swing

Sen. John Kerry giving a  speech about rising health care costs  in Orlando, Fla., earlier this week

Sen. John Kerry giving a speech about rising health care costs in Orlando, Fla., earlier this week. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

As a complete novice at covering political campaigns, I asked for advice from an expert: NPR's Elizabeth Arnold.

"Stay away from the bus as much as you can!" she told me. "Get off it, get ahead of it, and stay behind it. That's where the interesting stuff usually is."

Tagging along on a campaign bus — or plane — you can see a lot of the candidate, but it's easy to lose sight of the voters who will decide this presidential election. So before getting back on the Kerry bus this past week, I took my colleague's advice, and spent a few hours ahead of the campaign, in Louisville, Ky.

At Louisville Slugger Field, the hometown Bats were about to take on the Charlotte Knights. (The field and the team are named for the legendary bat manufactured here by Hillerich & Bradsby.) I found Sarah Millican just outside the ballpark, lounging against an cherry red Ford roadster. The car was part of a display assembled by the Christian Hot Rod Association. ("A driving force for Jesus.") Millican, who's a political science student at the University of Louisville, declared herself a supporter of President Bush.

"Military defense is a big priority for me, and I feel like Bush has done a good job of keeping us safe."

Millican said she was bothered by the recent photos of Iraqi prisoner abuse. "But I think in light of what they've done to us, and in light of Sept. 11 and different events like that, I don't feel like it's anything greater than what they've inflicted on us."

As the national anthem played inside the ballpark, I met Greg Parry. He's a health care worker who grew up in Louisville and recently moved back. He said he'd be voting for Kerry in November.

"I don't like the direction that Bush is taking this country in. I think that we're sort of starting to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world from a diplomatic perspective. And economically speaking I think the country has taken a turn for the worse since he's been in office."

These competing viewpoints are why some see Kentucky as a battleground. George Bush won the state handily four years ago. But Bill Clinton carried Kentucky in both 1992 and 1996. And Democrats seized a Congressional seat this year in a special election. The election this November could be a horserace. They know something about that here in the home of Churchill Downs.

There are brightly painted fiberglass horses on many downtown street corners in Louisville, a temporary art project called "Gallopalooza." Many of the statues are modeled on past Kentucky Derby winners. "War Admiral" is painted red, white and blue, with scenes of a tank and the Marines at Iwo Jima on his flanks. A year after the real War Admiral won the Derby in 1937, he was beaten at Pimlico by an ungainly horse named Seabiscuit. (John Kerry has spoken fondly about the movie.)

Kerry himself arrived in Louisville Monday night, and by the next morning I was back on the bus, joining the candidate's four-day, four-state tour.

"It's great to be here in a great NAVY town," Kerry told a crowd assembled along the waterfront in Jacksonville, Fla. "These must be about one-quarter of the votes they didn't count up here last time."

Kerry's theme in Jacksonville, and all this week, is health care reform. And while that topic may not be exactly red meat, it prompts a response wherever he goes.

"How many of you here have had an increase in premiums in the last year?" he asked the crowd. "How many of you have had an increase in the deductible and in the copy? And how many of you have seen the benefits go down?" With each question a sea of hands went up.

Kerry promised to make Florida "Kerry Country" in November. It won't be easy though. As he spoke, a plane flew overhead trailing a pro-Bush banner.

Kerry spent Tuesday night at Disney's Beach Club Hotel in Orlando. I wondered if he would use the proximity to Epcot Center to make his standard pitch for the U.S. to "rejoin the community of nations." It's a small world, after all.

But Kerry generally stuck to his health care script, steering clear of public comments on the events in Iraq. When an Orlando TV reporter asked if he was deliberately avoiding talk of the war, Kerry said no. He said it's important to keep the focus on what makes America strong at home.

It's probably also good politics. With the pictures of prison abuse dominating world news for the last two weeks, Kerry has not received as much attention as he might have. Some people think that's helped him. The intense scrutiny of Kerry's record, fueled by more than $50 million in campaign ads for President Bush, made April a rocky month for the challenger.

In recent days, however, with the harsh lights trained elsewhere, Kerry has gained ground in some areas, while President Bush's approval rating has suffered. Polls show the two men are running neck and neck. At least that's how they'd say it in Louisville.

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