BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, arguing that voters “are hungry for a real discussion,” promoted a health care plan that he said would save consumers $1,000 each as he focused attention Sunday on a pair of important Rust Belt states that have been battered by the steady drain of manufacturing jobs.

The Massachusetts senator said the swing was the opening salvo in his effort to focus the contentious presidential campaign on issues that matter to voters, like health care and jobs.

“Americans struggling to pay health care don’t need misleading attacks, they need meaningful answers,” Kerry said at a town meeting, where he heard from workers who lost health care coverage along with their jobs. “They didn’t just lose their livelihoods, they lost the health care they depend on.”

Kerry said the health care crisis has worsened under President Bush, with more than 1 million people a year losing coverage at a time when average health insurance premiums have increased by $793.

“The millions and millions of Americans with and without health insurance who fear opening their medical bills are the unheard majority in this debate,” he said. “They’re not silent, they’ve just been ignored.”

In response, a spokesman for Bush’s re-election campaign charged that Kerry has done little during a long political career in Congress to improve the nation’s health care system.

“He never passed a major piece of health care legislation during his 19 years in the U.S. Senate,” said Steve Schmidt, the spokesman. “The only thing he has done for seniors is vote for higher taxes on Social Security benefits.”

Pennsylvania is a key battleground state that Al Gore won in 2000, but where Bush has put a heavy emphasis. The president plans his 26th visit to the state on Monday as he stumps in the Philadelphia suburbs. Sunday’s swing was Kerry’s first since he became the Democratic presidential nominee-in-waiting earlier in the month.

The town meeting was contentious at times, with 52-year-old Cedric Brown repeatedly pressing the candidate to name the foreign leaders whom Kerry has said are backing his campaign.

“I’m not going to betray a private conversation with anybody,” Kerry said. As the crowd of several hundred people began to mutter and boo, Kerry said, “That’s none of your business.”

After Pennsylvania, Kerry was headed to Ohio, another Midwestern battleground.

A centerpiece of Kerry’s campaign is his call for repealing the Bush-backed tax cuts targeted to the wealthiest taxpayers and using the proceeds to broaden health coverage.

Bush says Kerry really wants higher taxes; Kerry says the charge is “the biggest distortion of all.”

“The plan I’ve offered will save Americans $1,000 a year in their health care costs,” Kerry said. “If George Bush thinks Americans would rather have tax cuts for the wealthiest, I welcome that debate.”

He also argued that working families would get far more under his health care proposal than under Bush’s tax cuts.

In his remarks, Kerry said Pennsylvania has lost 154,000 manufacturing jobs since Bush took office. And he passed the microphone to hear from those who’ve suffered economic setbacks Kerry sought to blame on Bush.

Jerry Green, president of a United Steelworkers Union local, said he lost pension and health benefits when Bethlehem Steel went bankrupt. “We desperately need help here,” he said.

Bill Reynolds said he lost his job at Agere Technologies in Allentown after 19 years when the company shifted jobs overseas. “I want to work, but I can’t find a job,” Reynolds said.

Kerry opened his day by attending Mass at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church, just a few blocks from the decaying Bethlehem Steel factory.

On the Net:

Kerry campaign:

AP-ES-03-14-04 1616EST

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.