With dueling economic messages, President Bush and rival John Kerry campaigned head-to-head in the Rust Belt Saturday, getting so close at one point that their bus caravans were rolling toward each other on a 35-mile stretch of Interstate 70.
They averted passing each other when Bush's motorcade turned north toward an event in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Kerry continued west into Ohio, a state with 20 electoral votes where Bush had spent the day trolling for support.
"The economy is strong, and it's getting stronger," Bush said to enthusiastic applause in Canton as the general election campaign began in earnest after Kerry claimed the Democratic nomination last week at the party's convention in Boston.
The president acknowledged the economy is lagging in eastern Ohio and elsewhere. In fact, he rode into the city on a campaign bus with 10 workers from the Timken Co., which said in May that declining production was behind the decision to close three bearings plants in Canton area, potentially idling 1,300 employees.
"I just traveled on the bus with workers who told me they were nervous about their future," Bush said. "They're concerned. I am, too, and therefore we must have a president who understands that if we're to keep jobs at home, America must be the best place to do business."
Bush was using a new stump speech with the phrases, "We've turned the corner, and we're not turning back" and "Results matter."
Kerry, on the second day of a two-week coast-to-coast trip with running mate John Edwards, told supporters in Greensburg, Pa., "The president said to America that we're turning the corner, referring to the economy.
"Let me ask you: if you're one of those 44 million Americans who doesn't have health insurance, and you have no prospect of buying it, are you turning a corner?"
"No!" the crowd yelled.
"If you're one of those people that has a job that pays $9,000 less than the jobs that we lost overseas, are we turning the corner for those folks?"
"No!" again was the response.
The Democrats were ending their day in Zanesville, about 25 miles along Interstate 70 from Cambridge, where Bush stopped to address a rally in a soggy baseball field before crossing the Ohio River into Wheeling, W.Va.
In his own appearance in Wheeling a few hours later, before moving on to Zanesville, Kerry jabbed again at the president's turning a corner reference.
"I don't know what corner they're turning, but the corner that I see is jobs turned the corner and just kept on going all the way outside the country to some other place," he said.
Crowds waited through three rain showers in Zanesville for Kerry's caravan, which arrived late.
Kerry hit Bush hard on his conduct on the war in Iraq. "I have more experience in foreign affairs now than President Bush did before he came and even after four years," Kerry said. He also laid out his economic plan for the patient Zanesville crowd, promising to "fight for your jobs as hard as we fight for our own."
Bush returned to the White House late Saturday while his running mate was off campaigning in the West. Vice President Dick Cheney told a crowd in Tuscon, Ariz., that the Bush team is "doing everything in our power to defend against a terrorist attack on our homeland" and repeated the theme later in New Mexico.
No Republican has captured the White House without carrying Ohio, which he did in 2000 when he defeated Democrat Al Gore by 3.6 percentage points to win the state's 20 electoral votes.
Stark County, home to Canton, is an area that Ohio political analysts say is a bellwether for the state in presidential elections.
Ohio has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs, and the county's unemployment rate was 6.4 percent in June, compared with 5.6 percent nationally. The federal deficit is at a record high, and economic growth slowed this spring.
Still, Bush struck a positive tone during the 19th visit to Ohio of his presidency.
"After four more years, there will be better paying jobs in America. After four more years, there will be more small businesses. After four more years, the American economy will continue to be the strongest in the world," the president said.
Bush traveled on a seven-bus motorcade — a caravan called "the Heart and Soul Moving America Forward" tour — that rolled south out of Cleveland in the early morning.
It stopped at the Cleveland Browns training camp in Berea, where Bush shook hands, chatted and threw a football with the players.
Speaking about offensive tackle Ryan Tucker, Bush said: "He went to the same high school as my wife, but he's not as good-looking." Both Laura Bush and Tucker went to Robert E. Lee High School in Midland, Texas.
On a dreary day, the convoy rolled on, at 40 mph and slower, through cities such as North Royalton, where people waved flags with one hand and held umbrellas with the other. In Canton, Bush supporters lined the streets, but protesters were present, too. "Where are the jobs, George," one sign said. "Protect my future, vote Kerry," said a second.
Thousands of people, overwhelmingly supporters of the president, lined the streets of Dover when the buses came through town. One woman raised a sign that said, "Dover apologizes for the idiots ahead." It was a reference to demonstrators a few blocks ahead where Kerry supporters chanted "No more Bush!" and held signs that said "War is not healthy."
At a candy store in downtown Dover, Bush bought six chocolate-covered caramels — "150 calories a bite," he joked — six marshmallow candies and a bag of caramel corn. Total bill: $1.50. He stopped later in the day at Cabela's, a super-sized outfitter's store in Triadelphia, W.Va. "I've come by because first I love to hunt and fish," Bush told several hundred employees. "Secondly, because I heard you're expanding the job base here."
At an evening rally at a convention center in Pittsburgh, Bush asked: "Why, why why should the American people give me the great privilege of serving four more years? We've accomplished a great deal ... We have so much more to do to move this country forward."
As evidence of the conflicted race for the White House, a man at the counter told the president, "Four more years." Earlier, in Canton, a boy held up a sign along the bus route that said, "Bush's last tour."