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Fans brave heat to hear Kerry

More than 6,000 supporters roar their approval for the man they hope will unseat President Bush

CENTRAL POINT ' A deafening roar from more than 6,000 Southern Oregonians greeted Sen. John Kerry Thursday at one of the biggest crowds ever for a single event at the Expo Center.

This is a heck of a crowd in 102-degree weather, said Expo director Chris Borovansky.

Two weeks ago, the Republican-only rally for Vice President Dick Cheney drew about 3,000 people to the Expo.

It jazzes me to no end to see so many Democrats, said Grants Pass resident Lavonne Hardy. I didn't know there were so many.

After the rally, which backed up traffic for two miles and resulted in two minor accidents, Kerry said, It was an unbelievably spectacular crowd.

— Despite an abundance of water bottles handed out by rally volunteers, some spectators were overcome by the heat and were treated by local emergency crews. An exact number was unavailable.

Kerry spent more than 20 minutes shaking hands and signing autographs after he gave his half-hour speech.

Medford resident LaRae Jensen said she couldn't resist stroking Kerry's arm when he walked by.

I'm still tingling, she said. I just wanted to touch the president.

Looking at the hand that touched Kerry, she said, I think it's precious.

Kate Hassen of Medford shook his hand and told Kerry, We've got to win. Kerry told her, We're going to win, she said.

Volunteer Alex Grove of Ashland, who got an autograph from Kerry, said he now has a better measure of the man after meeting him in person and hearing his speech. He's just a real guy, he said.

Grants Pass resident Allen Primer, who received two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star for gallantry in action during Vietnam, criticized attempts to undermine Kerry's war record as sleazy and unprofessional.

Primer, who still has shrapnel in his hip and stomach, said the Republican-led charges against Kerry don't surprise me a bit. I expected it.

Just before the rally, campaign aides escorted Primer onto the stage with other local veterans who met Kerry.

Afterwards Primer said, I'm beginning to have hope again.

Mark Minor of Fire District No. — was one of a dozen firefighters from Southern Oregon who shared the stage with Kerry.

Kerry stands up for the values I believe in, he said. He's looking toward a new direction of truth.

Gail Rasmussen, an administrative assistant at Eagle Point High School, also stood on the stage with Kerry. She was sharply critical of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act.

If we keep testing their behinds, there won't be any left, she said.

Also on stage with Kerry were seniors, Hispanics and health care workers.

The Kerry campaign, which welcomed Republicans and Democrats to the event, set aside areas in the audience for the disabled and elderly veterans and even provided a sign language interpreter during the speeches.

Unlike the Cheney rally, there didn't appear to be any protesters in the crowd.

Peter Buckley, running for the House District 5 seat, said, This is what a democracy looks like. ... This is what the end of the Bush administration looks like.

The audience roared its approval, yelling Kerry, Kerry, Kerry, and waving signs that stated, Help is on the way.

Medford resident Gloria Moody said the help won't come soon enough. She has a nephew in the military who is currently stationed in Athens for the Olympic Games but is scheduled to go back to Iraq in the near future.

I've never felt so strongly that I needed to go to a rally, she said. I want a new commander for my family in Iraq.

Not everyone liked the speech.

Vince LePore, treasurer for the Jackson County Republican Central Committee, said, It was a regular political rally just like the Republicans had.

LePore, who preferred the message offered by Cheney, said Kerry was preaching to the choir.

I noticed he had a lot of slogans, he said. He used a lot of one-liners.

A veteran of World War II, LePore, who watched the rally on television, said he thought it was appropriate to question Kerry's conduct during the war, and also hopes his official war record will be released.

LePore said the speech appeared to be more negative. He bashed Bush without mentioning Bush, he said.

Kerry said health care costs have gone up and wages have gone down, but LePore questioned, What did Mr. Kerry do as a senator to resolve these things?

June Buck, a retired Medford teacher who stood on stage with Kerry, said the crowd would have been bigger if we had a bigger building. If it was after hours, and, of course, the heat.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail