SPRINGFIELD, Ohio - Falling confetti and balloons were just settling on the floor of the Republican National Convention in New York when Sen. John Kerry stepped before throngs at a midnight rally for Democrats here in Ohio's western corner and lashed back at the GOP messages that have dominated this week.
"For three days in New York, instead of talking about real plans for creating jobs, strengthening the economy, expanding health care and bringing down gas prices, we heard almost nothing but anger and insults from the Republicans," the Massachusetts senator told a crowd of more than 10,000 cheering supporters. "And I'll tell you why. It's because they can't talk about the real issues facing Americans. They can't talk about their record because it's a record of failure.
"For the past week, they have attacked my patriotism and even my fitness to serve as commander in chief. Well, here's my answer. I will not have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled America into Iraq."
The remarks were a clear rebuke to both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who originally justified going to war in Iraq last year by wrongly asserting that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Cheney, who savaged Kerry in remarks Wednesday night, avoided military service by obtaining five war-time deferments. Bush remained at home in the National Guard, while Kerry served in Vietnam, was wounded, and won five medals, including the Silver Star.
The Kerry rally, strategically scheduled to steal thunder from the Republican convention, began just minutes after Bush accepted his party's nomination.
Just shy of midnight, the sky clear and the air fragrant with the scent of blooming irises, Kerry and Edwards jogged to a stage set in a clearing where a weekly farmers' market is held. Holding her 6-year-old daughter, Alexandra, in her arms, Dana Howard, 36, a business manager from Dayton, clapped each time Kerry paused.
"I don't like Bush at all," she said. "I don't like the mudslinging, and I think after tonight that Kerry really does have a lot to say."
The rally marked a return to the campaign trail for Kerry and his running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, in a key battleground state that they must win to claim the election on Nov. 2, just 61 days away. And it represented a new, aggressive turn after weeks spent responding to controversial television ads by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacking Kerry's Vietnam War record.
A Kerry friend, Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, has denounced the ads as dishonest. But Bush refused to disavow them, and seemed to gain momentum in recent weeks while Kerry fended off criticism.
Ohio, one of three states targeted by the Swift Boat group with television ads, is a near dead heat, according to recent political polls. Only a tiny fraction of voters, ranging from 4 percent to 6 percent of eligible voters, remains undecided.
A Columbus Dispatch poll conducted Aug. 18-27 showed Kerry in a tie with Bush. And a Los Angeles Times poll from Aug. 21-24 showed Bush with 49 percent to Kerry's 44 percent, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Bush successfully neutralized a slight bump in national polling for Kerry just after the Democratic National Convention by taking his campaign to Missouri, Wisconsin and Ohio. Kerry and Edwards hope to forestall any Bush bounce.
Both Bush and Kerry have spent considerable time campaigning in the Midwest, and the Buckeye State in particular, with Bush making 10 visits and Kerry, with yesterday's arrival in Dayton, an even dozen.
Kerry began his cross-state bus tour last night outside Dayton before pulling into Springfield, a western Ohio town whose industrial past is carved in hulking outlines against the September sky. Between early 2001 and August 2004, Ohio ranked third behind Massachusetts and Michigan in lost jobs, according to government economic figures.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland, the Democratic Whip in the House, predicted Ohio would ultimately go for the Kerry/Edwards ticket, "because they have a real plan to create jobs, cut taxes for middle-class families, lower health care costs, and make our country safer and more respected in the world."