By Patricia Wilson
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Democratic candidate John Kerry warned black Americans on Thursday to beware of George W. Bush's overtures and called the Republican president a wolf in sheep's clothing who "traffics in the politics of division."
In a tough speech to the National Baptist Convention laced with Biblical allusions, the Democratic presidential candidate rejected Bush's claim to be a "compassionate conservative," likening him instead to the two men in the story of the Good Samaritan who passed by when they came upon a robbed and beaten man.
"They felt compassion but there were no deeds," Kerry said in remarks prepared for delivery. "It is clear: for four years George W. Bush may have talked about compassion but he's walked right by. He's seen people in need but he's crossed over to the other side of the street."
Kerry also heaped scorn Bush's campaign slogans and compared him unfavorably to those who fought for civil rights in the United States.
"In the hardest passages of the long march ... amid lynchings and unyielding discrimination, the stalwart foot soldiers of justice did not look around and say, as we have heard so often from Washington these days, that we've 'turned the corner' or the job was 'getting done' or that this was the best we could do."
The senator from Massachusetts, who is struggling to catch Bush in national polls two months before the Nov. 2 election, cited lost jobs, rising health care costs, record federal budget deficits and "miscalculations" in Iraq that had resulted in "shredded" alliances and challenges to U.S. influence.
Bush has questioned whether Democrats, who traditionally garner about 90 percent of the black vote in presidential elections, have taken one of their staunchest constituencies for granted and suggested blacks look at his policies.
"As scripture reminds us, beware of wolves in sheep's clothing," Kerry said, citing Bush's failure to meet with leaders of major black organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Congressional Black Caucus.
"The president who scorns economic justice and affirmative action, who traffics in the politics of division and then claims he is a friend of black America cannot conceal his identity no matter what clothes he wears," he said.
Earlier in Des Moines, Iowa, Kerry accused the administration of enabling U.S. drug companies to raise prices and declare "open season" on American consumers.
He painted Bush as out of touch with the "real life stories" of people who were struggling to afford health care, doing without it altogether or paying many times more for the same prescription drugs than Canadians.
He also berated the president for telling Americans the war in Iraq would be "a piece of cake" and said the $200 billion cost of the conflict and its aftermath had weakened the United States domestically.
Kerry told a town hall meeting that, unlike Bush, he would allow reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada and elsewhere.
"The Bush administration has empowered, enabled and assisted some of those people (drug companies) to raise their prices," Kerry said during a meeting with four Iowans grappling with health care issues. "Here, it's open season on all of you."