"We have a difference of philosophy in this campaign," Mr. Bush told supporters in St. Cloud, Minn. "It's a clear difference: my opponent's programs will expand government. Our programs will expand opportunity."
Mr. Bush made a special point of slapping Kerry's positions on health care, one of the issues where the president is weakest against Kerry. The president is attempting to boost his own agenda by painting the Massachusetts senator as a big-government, anti-business, anti-patient politician.
"I have a commonsense practical plan to make high-quality health care more affordable and more accessible," Mr. Bush said. "My opponent wants government to dictate. I want you to decide, when it comes to health care."
Health care was to be the president's focus again as he takes his campaign bus to the Minneapolis suburb of Blaine. He was ending his visit later in the day at another campaign rally in Rochester.
Kerry, meanwhile, was off to Las Vegas, where he will address a National Guard convention – the same group Mr. Bush spoke to earlier this week.
In other campaign developments:
The president arrived in Minnesota during a week when three new polls showed a close race. One by the Star-Tribune of Minneapolis had Kerry in front. Two others — one by Mason-Dixon for the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minnesota Public Radio and another by Gallup for CNN and USA Today — showed the candidates nearly even.
With health care costs rising dramatically and the number of people without health insurance up by about 5 million to 45 million last year, Kerry has kept up a drumbeat of criticism of Bush on the topic.
Mr. Bush's proposals include letting small businesses pool resources to buy health insurance at the same discounts available to larger companies. He also favors expanding tax-free health saving accounts for individuals and plans to propose a tax credit to help poor families and individuals buy health coverage. Further, he wants to have health centers in the poorest communities to serve the underprivileged.
The president has called for a medical liability overhaul to limit malpractice awards and, he argues, drive down health care costs.
"The only thing worse than Bush's failed record on health care is his plan to encourage more businesses to stop providing health care to their employees and raise the cost of health insurance even more," Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said. "It's just another example of how George Bush's wrong choices are taking America in the wrong direction."
Mr. Bush, though, slams Kerry for proposing what the president on Thursday called "a plan that is massive and it is big" that would have government dictating Americans' health care choices. The Kerry campaign objects to that characterization, saying its plan is a mix of business incentives and tax credits.
Kerry has proposed helping more businesses offer health care by requiring the federal government to pick up 75 percent of catastrophic health care costs, a plan his campaign estimates will lower premiums by an average of 10 percent. He also would give small businesses a tax credit to help them bear the cost of health insurance and wants to allow people to buy cheaper-priced drugs from Canada.