COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Vice President Dick Cheney criticized the Democratic ticket on Monday, arguing that John Kerry and John Edwards have opposed changes to the medical malpractice insurance system because they are too close to trial lawyers.
During a question-and-answer session with Bush-Cheney backers, the vice president said the administration is pushing to cap the amounts from large court judgments for what he called "non-economic suffering."
"Both Sens. Edwards and Kerry have consistently voted against medical liability reform. They don't want to see reform of that system. I think it's because, frankly, they are too close to the plaintiff's attorneys that benefit from the system and the way it operates today," Cheney said during a rally in a warehouse of Boone County Lumber Co., decorated with a large U.S. flag.
Vice presidential candidate Edwards was a trial lawyer who made millions before his election to the Senate in 1998. During his unsuccessful bid for the party nomination, Edwards raised at least $9 million from lawyers from January 2003 until he withdrew from the race in early March. He took in about $22 million total.
Many of the lawyers who fueled Edwards' White House bid gave at least $7 million to Kerry after he secured the Democratic nomination, according to campaign finance reports last month. Of the roughly $74 million Kerry raised in March and April, close to $1 in every $10 came from attorneys.
Campaigning in North Carolina on Monday, Edwards answered Cheney's criticism, saying he was "dead wrong" about the Democratic candidates' position on how to keep the cost of medical malpractice payments down.
Describing the issue as a "basic values question," Edwards said, "Sen. Kerry and I are going to stand with families and kids as we always have, as we believe it's important for the president and the vice president to do, instead of being on the side of insurance companies and big drug companies, which is unfortunately where they are."
Jennifer Palmieri, a Kerry campaign spokeswoman, disputed Cheney's claim that Kerry and Edwards have voted against medical liability reform.
"To say they oppose changes to medical malpractice, that's Cheney's interpretation, not fact," Palmieri said, noting that during the Democratic primaries Kerry and Edwards proposed putting the burden on lawyers to prove the merit of a case before bringing it to court.
Cheney said the administration wants to preserve the rights of people with legitimate grievances, but "the way the system works now, we get an awful lot of frivolous lawsuits filed. Lots of times they file simply in the hope that it'll never go to trial -- that they'll be able to hoo-rah the insurance company into paying them a substantial chunk of money."
Repeating the audience member's question, Cheney confused Kerry with Edwards: "He mentioned that Senator Kerry was a trial attorney who'd been involved ... "
The questioner interrupted to correct Cheney.
"Edwards," Cheney said. "I get them confused."
The trip marked Cheney's sixth stop this year in the battleground state, which offers 11 electoral votes.
In 2000, Democrat Al Gore narrowly carried Boone County, but it was a central Missouri island surrounded by counties that went for Bush-Cheney, who won the state by about 3 percentage points.
Cheney toured the lumber company showroom and plant, shaking hands with workers in company T-shirts, at least two of whom had not decided if they will vote for President Bush or Kerry in the November election.
"I haven't made up my mind, but I'll know what I want when I hear it," said Ray Long, 50, who showed Cheney his work station assembling made-to-order woodwork.
Billy Potts, 50, inserted glass into a wooden door as Cheney looked on. Potts said afterward that he usually splits his ballot between Democrats and Republicans, but didn't vote in 2000 -- and isn't settled on who he will back this year.
"I can't say for sure. It just depends on the individual. Put me down as open-minded," Potts said.
Their boss, lumber company co-owner Brad Eiffert, praised the Bush administration, saying tax cuts and law revisions favorable to small business brought prosperity to the firm founded by his now-retired father.
"Thanks to President Bush and their economic policies, our business is growing," Eiffert said.
From Columbia, Cheney flew to Toledo, Ohio, to deliver remarks about health care at a medical college. Bush is to visit St. Charles for a rally Tuesday evening.