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Kerry Confronts Pennsylvania's Quiet Struggles, Loud Jeers

September 07, 2004|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

CANONSBURG, Pa. — The passions of this tight presidential election unfolded here Monday on a leafy, working-class street lined with sturdy brick houses, many festooned with patriotic bunting in honor of Labor Day.

There was a cluster of supporters for President Bush who pressed up against a barricade, trying to drown the Democratic candidate out with shouts of "flip flop" and "liar" as he spoke to a group of residents.

And then there was Lori Sheldon.

The 45-year-old mother of two said that Sen. John F. Kerry "told our story" when he spoke about the economic pressures squeezing middle-class families.

She pointed to her 11-year-old and 15-year-old daughters.

"I'm tired of saying no," Sheldon said, choking up. "We say no all the time."

On full display were the attacks on Kerry's consistency and military service that have battered the Democratic campaign in recent weeks. And on the same street, in poignant details, working Americans told stories of how they have struggled to get by.

The neighborhood debate emerged during Kerry's "front porch discussion" -- one of such signature events organized by the campaign to showcase the candidate meeting with average Americans. While he occasionally encounters Bush supporters during his conversations with neighbors, Monday's group was particularly vocal.

Before 8 a.m. Monday, the lines were already drawn.

On one end of the road stood a group clutching Kerry signs, eagerly awaiting his arrival. At the other, the gaggle of Bush supporters waved hand-lettered placards with messages like "John Kerry for president of France" and "I voted for Kerry before I voted against him."

The two camps let out competing boos and cheers when the Democratic hopeful finally appeared, stepping out of Dale and Jody Rhome's two-story home to talk with several dozen people seated outside in folding chairs.

"What about the Swift boat?" yelled one man down the street, referring to the attacks on Kerry's Vietnam record by a group of veterans.

The candidate seemed initially distracted by the demonstrators, turning to look in their direction as they shouted.

But after a few minutes, he addressed them directly.

When Kerry discussed the tax burden of the "average American," one protester down the street jeered: "Yeah, you're average, John!"

Without missing a beat, Kerry retorted: "Just to answer that guy -- because he's right, I'm privileged -- my tax burden went down, and I don't think that's right.

"I think your tax burden ought to go down," he said.

"This is about fundamental fairness and the fact is George W. Bush and I fit in the same category of privilege .... He has a different view about life. He thinks the wealthiest people ought to be rewarded again. I don't. I think the average American deserves the tax break in this country."

The people seated in the Rhomes' front yard offered a series of deeply personal testimonials.

One 70-year-old woman told Kerry that she's had 11 throat surgeries and had to get a part-time job to pay for her medicine.

"This is not fair that at this age we have to suffer like this," she said.

Against the din of the protesters, Kerry responded: "Now, here again is truth that some people don't like to hear. But truth is truth."

When the Bush supporters began to chant loudly, "Four more years!" Kerry spoke of the increasing federal deficit.

"Every one of those folks screaming over there actually has a bigger debt to pay," he said.

The demonstrators did not relent. "When are you going to leave?" one hollered.

But Kerry took one more question -- this one from Sheldon, who said that her husband, a US Airways baggage handler, might be laid off this fall. The family would lose their health insurance, as well as a paycheck.

"It's the story," he told her, "that I've heard all across this country."

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