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Health & Guns Top Campaign Agenda

President Bush on Monday denounced Democrat John Kerry's health care proposal as a government takeover that would trigger tax hikes.

"We have a difference of opinion in this campaign," Mr. Bush told supporters in western Michigan. "I'm running against a fellow who has got a massive, complicated blueprint to have our government take over the decision-making in health care.

"Not only is his plan going to increase the power of bureaucrats in your life, but he can't pay for it unless he raises your taxes."

The crowd booed.

While the president leads Kerry in the polls when voters are asked who would keep the country safe, the president's numbers aren't as favorable when it comes to domestic matters. A recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll found 51 percent of registered voters disapproving of how Mr. Bush is handling such issues as health care, education and the environment.

Sitting on stage with residents from Grand Rapids, Rockford and Muskegon, Mr. Bush outlined his health care ideas.

He said he wants small businesses to be allowed to pool resources to buy health insurance at discounts available to large companies. He also favors expanding health saving accounts and plans to propose a tax credit to help poor families and individuals buy coverage. Further, he wants to ensure that each of America's poorest communities has a health center to serve the underprivileged.

In addition, Mr. Bush has called for a medical liability overhaul that he says would speed damage awards to those injured through malpractice and help keep insurance premiums within the reach of good doctors. He rarely misses an opportunity on the campaign trail to note that Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, earned millions as a trial attorney before turning to politics.

Kerry worked last week to turn the campaign focus to health care issues. At a round-table discussion in Des Moines, Iowa, he cited a new report showing a double-digit increase in insurance premiums for the fourth year in a row. He also noted that monthly premiums for the part of Medicare that pays for doctor visits and most other non-hospital expenses is going up 17 percent.

Kerry says he wants to help more businesses offer health care by requiring the federal government to pick up 75 percent of catastrophic health care costs, a plan that his campaign estimates will lower premiums by an average of 10 percent.

The Massachusetts senator would give small businesses a tax credit to help them bear the cost of health insurance. Kerry also wants to let people purchase lower cost drugs from Canada, and he has called on Mr. Bush to back this idea.

Mr. Bush's speech in Muskegon was the first stop on two bus trips, focusing on health care, that the president will take this week in the Midwest. He'll be in Minnesota on Thursday.

The administration has been studying drug importation, but Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said last week it will not likely come up for a vote in the Senate this year.

Kerry, meanwhile, hit on another domestic theme on Monday, criticizing Mr. Bush for letting the decade-long ban on assault weapons expire while unveiling his own $5 billion plan to fight crime and picking up the backing of a coalition of police unions.

"Today George Bush made the job of terrorists easier and made the job of America's law enforcement officers harder and that's just plain wrong,'' the Democratic nominee told a Washington audience.

Kerry said, "George Bush made a choice today. He chose his powerful friends in the gun lobby over the police officers and the families he promised to protect."

Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said that was "another false attack from Senator Kerry." The president believes the best way to curb gun violence is to enforce laws that are on the books, McClellan said, and he added that violent crime was at a 30-year low.

Republican leaders in Congress said last week they have no plans to renew the 1994 ban on 19 types of military-style assault weapons, even as some law enforcement officials encouraged them to keep the prohibition alive. Mr. Bush has said he would sign a renewal, but Democrats say he has made no effort to press Congress to approve one.

Kerry unveiled a $5 billion plan to fight crime and picked up the endorsement of the National Association of Police Organizations, a coalition of more than 2,000 police unions and associations.

Kerry outlined a $5 billion, 10-year anti-crime agenda, to be paid for by extension of customs fees already included in numerous pending bills.

To cut crime, he would restore the assault weapons ban and push to:

  • Fund the COPS program to the full amount authorized by Congress.
  • Ensure that state and local law enforcement agencies get access to the national terrorist lists, and simplify those lists.
  • Increase scrutiny of purchases at gun shows.
  • Enforce existing gun laws and help U.S. attorneys battle interstate gun trafficking.
  • Crack down on gang violence and increase former gang members' access to jobs, job training, school and drug rehabilitation.
  • Increase federal aid to local governments fighting methamphetamine and ban bulk purchasing of over-the-counter drugs used to manufacture methamphetamine.
  • Hire 5,000 new community prosecutors over five years.
  • Expand DNA testing and remove the statute of limitations on some DNA evidence.
  • Provide money for jobs and technology to improve probation and parole systems.