By Mark Naymik

Cleveland became the first stop yesterday in U.S. Sen. John Kerry's campaign to win the White House in 2004, and he wasted no time in blasting President Bush and unveiling his plan for boosting the economy.

In a speech before the City Club, the Massachusetts politician criticized the Bush administration's economic policies and proposed his own tax cuts for the middle class and business incentives to spark job growth.

Kerry announced Sunday that he was forming an exploratory committee to raise money for a possible bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

He said in an interview after yesterday's speech that he chose Cleveland to unveil his economic platform because Ohio is crucial to winning a national election and the state exemplifies the decline in manufacturing. Ohio represents the "transition in the American workplace and challenge of putting people back to work," Kerry said.

He added: "It's a state that has produced seven presidents and is always a good measure of the country."

During his nearly one-hour speech, Kerry frequently criticized Bush's tax cuts, saying they will have to be "paid for by our children."

"That's right, we are borrowing from Social Security and Medicare to put money in some people's pockets today, and sticking our children with the bill," he said.

Kerry proposed giving workers a "tax holiday" by exempting them from paying certain taxes on the first $10,000 of their income.

Bush, in Louisiana campaigning on behalf of GOP Senate candidate Suzie Haik Terrell - who is in a run-off election Saturday against Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu - took issue with Kerry's complaints without mentioning the veteran senator by name.

The president touted what he described as the economic payoffs of his plan to indefinitely extend the 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax cuts adopted last year. As approved, many of the reductions would expire in a decade, but Bush said extending the cuts would stimulate the sluggish economy.

"Tax relief is not just a political slogan, it's good economic policy," Bush said.

Kerry also accused Bush of undermining efforts to reform the accounting industry and failing to create an effective energy policy.

"They think they can drill our way out of our energy problems," he said, referring to the administration's proposal to drill for oil in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Former U.S. Sen. John Glenn of Ohio introduced Kerry and made fun of his need for an exploratory committee.

"My personal belief is that he's pretty well explored that," Glenn said. "I don't know why he needs a committee."

Before yesterday's speech, Kerry met with about 30 influential Democrats, including former Ohio party Chairman Paul Tipps and Democratic strategist Gerald Austin, to build a strategy for the state.

Kerry insisted that he's not officially entered the race but said his decision to seek the party's nomination is not tied to whether former vice president Al Gore runs. Kerry, a senator since 1984, would join a crowded field. At least seven Democrats may enter the race, with Gore the likely favorite.

Asked if he thought Gore - who lost to Bush in Ohio by only 3.6 percent - made a mistake by pulling his campaign out of the state in the final weeks of the 2000 election, Kerry said Gore's narrow loss "speaks for itself."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:

mnaymik@plaind.com, 216-999-4849

BOX:

KERRY'S ECONOMIC PLAN

U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is contemplating a bid for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, unveiled his economic plan at the City Club in Cleveland yesterday:

Give workers a one-year "holiday" from certain payroll taxes on the first $10,000 of income.

Raise the minimum wage and give larger tax breaks for low-income families that stay off welfare rolls.

Give employers a one-time break from federal payroll taxes for each new job and for raises given to employees.

Allow small businesses to defer up to $250,000 in federal taxes if the money is re-invested in the business.