HERSHEY, Penn. - President Bush railed against medical malpractice lawsuits yesterday and met with a top religious leader in attempts to make inroads in this Democratic-leaning and heavily Catholic state.
On a campaign swing that included politically divided Philadelphia suburbs and Republican strongholds in the Susquehanna River Valley, the president criticized Sen. John Kerry for proposing an expensive government-oriented health care plan.
In a state where doctors have protested against high malpractice insurance premiums, Bush slammed his opponent for voting against limits on medical lawsuit awards.
"The quality of life is deteriorating because of these lawsuits," he told supporters in suburban Downingtown.
He later met privately with the Roman Catholic archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali, before speaking at a large outdoor rally in Hershey.
Kerry, a Catholic, has faced criticism from some in the church hierarchy because he supports abortion rights and stem cell research using human embryos. Bush, a Methodist who has met several times with Pope John Paul II, courts Catholics with his opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
Although Bush lost Pennsylvania to Al Gore in 2000, his campaign believes victory is possible this time by appealing to conservative Democrats and increasing support among rural and suburban Republicans.
A rally today in Wilkes-Barre will mark Bush's 41st visit to the state since taking office. Recent polls show Kerry with a slight edge in the state.
Although Bush has focused on national security issues in the final weeks of the campaign, he shifted to health care yesterday in a state with prominent teaching hospitals and a large elderly population.
Bush faces an uphill battle on the issue, according to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this week. The survey suggest most voters believe Kerry would better handle health care issues.
The president touted a program that would allow people to set up tax-free health savings accounts and businesses to enter into insurance pools. He called Kerry's approach too expensive and said it would give the government a bigger say in health care decisions.
Kerry wants to make insurance available to millions more by expanding existing federal programs such as Medicaid and allowing people to enroll in the same private insurance plans that lawmakers and federal workers have.
The president argued that expanding federal programs could cause businesses to drop health coverage for workers.
Answering Bush's charge that malpractice awards raise health care costs, Kerry has pointed to a January 2004 study by the Congressional Budget Office, which said that curbs on awards would reduce health care costs by only a half of 1 percent.
Bush attacks Kerry for choosing former trial lawyer John Edwards as his running mate.
"You cannot be pro-doctor, pro-health care and pro-personal injury lawyer at the same time," Bush told more than 20,000 supporters in Hershey.
But Democrats say the president is being hypocritical because he recently campaigned with Florida GOP Senate candidate Mel Martinez, a prominent trial lawyer and former Bush Cabinet member.
President Bush campaigns today in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.
Senator Kerry will visit Wisconsin, Nevada and Colorado.