INDEPENDENCE, WIS. — INDEPENDENCE, Wis. - Across almost all of rural America, George W. Bush easily beat Al Gore in 2000.
One of the major exceptions was in the mostly rural counties that line the Mississippi River in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa - states that Gore narrowly won and states considered key in this year's election.
So it's no surprise that Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry found himself standing near knee-high corn this Fourth of July weekend, touring dairy barns, wearing Levi's jeans and trap shooting with a 12-gauge shotgun.
"I don't have all the answers. I don't pretend to," he told a small crowd in a farm machine shed here yesterday. "But I know how to listen. I know how to sit down at a table and not put my partisanship or politics ahead of how we will solve the problem."
But Kerry also was forced to defend past votes for dairy compacts in the Northeast, measures that protected farmers in his area but raised fears of falling prices for Midwestern dairy farmers.
"I'm not running to be president of New England," he said. "I'll stand up for farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa and other parts of the country."
As Kerry undertook a final weekend of grass-roots campaigning before an expected running mate announcement this week, his Midwest bus trip was meant to make him look real, not part of Washington.
Kerry hopes to do better among rural voters than Al Gore, who exit surveys show was beaten badly in 2000 by Bush in rural America, which includes about a quarter of the electorate.
While rural voters in the Upper Midwest traditionally had been a Democratic bedrock, in recent presidential elections they've show greater independence and cultural issues such as abortion and gun control have taken on greater importance.
That Bush lost every Wisconsin county along the Mississippi - and all but one in Iowa - is reason for Kerry to see potential in a region Mark Twain once called "the body of the nation."
After traveling through northern Minnesota and western Wisconsin on Friday, Kerry's three-day bus trip took him to the river's banks yesterday as part of a 546-mile journey that will end tonight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Yesterday afternoon, he visited the Gunslick Trap Club in Holmen, Wis., where he shot 17 of 25 clay birds
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