By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent
BOSTON (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, visiting the site of one of the most famous political debates in U.S. history, planned to challenge President Bush on Saturday to a "real discussion about America's future" in a monthly series of debates.
Kerry, already engaged in a running exchange of negative ads with Bush eight months before the November election, planned to deliver the challenge at the site of the historic Abraham Lincoln-Stephen Douglas debates in Quincy, Illinois.
That series of 1858 senatorial debates between Douglas and Lincoln, who lost the Senate election but won the presidency two years later, is legendary in U.S. political history for elevating crucial issues like slavery and states' rights to the front of the U.S. political agenda.
"Surely, if the attack ads can start now at least we can agree to start a real discussion about America's future," Kerry said in remarks prepared for delivery in Quincy, Illinois, later on Saturday.
Bush and Kerry have exchanged negative ads in the past few days, with Bush criticizing Kerry by name for planning to raise taxes and threatening to weaken U.S. security and Kerry firing back at his "misleading" accusations.
Kerry challenged the Republican president to monthly debates on the "great issues" of the day, including the war on terrorism, the loss of U.S. jobs and the plight of Americans without health care.
"2004 can't be just another year of politics as usual," Kerry said in the text. "The challenges we face are just too grave and too great.
"We confront big issues -- as big as any in our history -- and they call for a new and historic commitment to a real and informed exchange of ideas."
Quincy was the site of the sixth of seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858, with 20,000 people - double the town's population -- gathering to hear the two men, who shared a river steamer to their next debate.
"Maybe George Bush and I won't travel on the same boat or the same airplane, but we can give this country a campaign that genuinely addresses our real issues and treats voters with respect," Kerry said.
After the Quincy rally, Kerry planned to travel to Pennsylvania and Ohio on Sunday as he continues appearances in states with upcoming primaries, even though he has clinched the Democratic nomination.
After a brief vacation next week, Kerry will embark on a 20-city fund-raising tour at the end of the month to try to close the cash gap on Bush, who had $100 million more on hand at the end of January. Kerry has raised more than $10 million on the Internet since he effectively clinched the nomination on March 2.