Laura Bush, Kerry appear before AARP group in Vegas |

Laura Bush, Kerry appear before AARP group in Vegas


LAS VEGAS – First lady Laura Bush and Democrat John Kerry received warm welcomes at an AARP convention Thursday, where in separate appearances both recalled the group’s key backing for a Medicare prescription drug law and promised benefits for seniors in the next four years.

“Some people said Medicare modification was impossible,” Mrs. Bush told about 9,000 people at the Sands Convention Center on the Las Vegas Strip. “President Bush didn’t agree, and fortunately for American seniors, neither did AARP.”

Last year, the 35 million-member organization of Americans 50 and older backed the Medicare legislation, drawing strong criticism from Democratic opponents and prompting 60,000 people to resign their membership.

Since the law’s passage, polls show support for it lags among older Americans and AARP has campaigned for changes, including making it legal to import cheaper prescription medicines from Canada and giving Medicare the authority to negotiate with drug manufacturers.

Kerry, who opposed the Bush Medicare plan, followed Mrs. Bush to the podium about 90 minutes later and took a jab at the president’s decision not to speak to the AARP convention. Instead, Bush spoke to a rally in Las Vegas with Republican governors.

“The AARP tried to work with the president in good faith,” Kerry said of the nonpartisan group efforts. “In the end, the president was not working for America’s seniors. And maybe that’s why today he won’t show up to defend his bill.”

The first lady told the AARP delegates that her husband could not appear personally because of a prior commitment. She quipped that he was not yet ready to retire, and encouraged seniors to register for Medicare drug discount cards.

“He can’t be every place,” said AARP member Evelyn McMahon, 71, a retired nurse and Bush supporter from Clearwater, Fla. “I think Laura’s a good campaigner for him.”

Mrs. Bush called Social Security a central part of the administration’s “compassionate society,” and said the president was firmly committed not to raise taxes or cut benefits.

Kerry told the organization, formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, that the president’s health plan was, “Hope and pray that you don’t get sick.”

Kerry began his remarks by faulting Bush’s handling of the economy.

“I’ll tell you folks we have to change things in this country,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than an unemployed Elvis.”

About 60 people took part in a peaceful pro-Kerry demonstration outside the convention hall, organized by the National Federation of Federal Employees.

“We want to make sure Kerry wins in ’04,” said Karen Drozdowska, a state employee from East Tawas, Mich., who said she was drawn from another convention in town to wave a Kerry-Edwards sign at passing traffic.

After addressing the AARP, Mrs. Bush accompanied her husband on a flight north to Reno, where he addressed another campaign rally and she was due to attend a campaign fund-raiser in Lake Tahoe before the two of them departed for Central Point, Ore. It was the first lady’s third trip to Nevada in two weeks, and fifth this year.

Kerry was making his fifth trip to Nevada this year. His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, pitched his health care plan during a stop in Reno.

The blitz of Thursday campaign appearances in Nevada came a day after the last of three presidential campaign debates in Tempe, Ariz.

Polls show the race for Nevada’s five electoral votes about even. In 2000, Bush narrowly carried the state, 49.5 percent to 46 percent.

Jack O’Hara, 74, a former Marine who retired from Spring Hill, Fla., to Las Vegas last year, said he wasn’t upset the president did not appear before the AARP.

“He’s gotta make his choices, just like we have to make our choices on November 2nd,” O’Hara said.

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