WASHINGTON — President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, took each other to task Tuesday over economic policies, as Kerry talked up his trade platform at a town hall meeting in North Carolina.

“Because of George Bush’s wrong choices, this country is continuing to ship good jobs overseas — jobs with good wages and good benefits,” Kerry said in remarks prepared for delivery at the meeting in Greensboro, N.C.

Greensboro is home to major fabric mills, including International Textile Group and Guilford Mills, both of which have cut payrolls significantly in recent years. The Kerry campaign said that the nation has lost about 2.3 million manufacturing jobs since Bush took office in 2001. North Carolina has dropped 160,000 jobs since Bush was elected in 2001, with about 61,000 coming from the textile and apparel industries.

With less than two months to go in the campaign, Bush pulled ahead in the polls after last week’s GOP convention in New York. The latest poll, released Monday by Gallup for CNN and USA Today, gives Bush a 52 percent share of the vote and Kerry 45 percent. The survey was based on interviews with 778 likely voters.

Seeking to gain ground, Kerry took on the issue of U.S. companies moving jobs overseas, a practice known as offshore outsourcing. He wants to remove a tax incentive that allows U.S. companies operating abroad to delay paying taxes until earnings are repatriated. As an incentive to increase U.S. investment, Kerry would offer a one-time tax holiday to repatriate earnings to encourage U.S. investment.

While he has said he supports international trade, Kerry has indicated that he would review all trade pacts to weigh whether U.S. businesses are being treated equitably against foreign competition. Kerry also wants to lower the corporate tax rate to 33.25 percent from 35 percent for U.S. businesses.

In response to Kerry’s appearance, the Bush campaign pointed out that some of the challenger’s backers have moved jobs abroad, and raised the specter of sweatshops.

The Bush campaign in a statement noted that one of Kerry’s backers is Democratic contributor and Esprit co-founder Susie Tompkins Buell and cited a 1993 Labor Department sweep of the San Francisco garment district that found three Esprit contractors violated federal wage laws.

This story first appeared in the September 8, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Buell, who is no longer associated with Esprit, said through a spokeswoman the contractor violations occurred “such a long time ago” and at the time she “wasn’t running the day-to-day operations” of the retailer, which was sold in 1996.

“Nothing surprises her,” regarding the Bush camp’s attacks, said Buell spokeswoman and political adviser Andrea Dew. “She feels she wants to talk about the issues facing the country today, just like John Kerry.”

The Bush campaign statement said: “Kerry’s own list of business supporters includes outsourcers… He has even said he would support companies taking jobs overseas in the normal course of business. Kerry’s shifting positions on outsourcing are another reason that he faces a credibility problem with the American people.”

The statement also noted that Kerry’s national finance chairman Lou Susman and former Clinton administration Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin are top officials at Citigroup, which the statement called an outsourcer.

Bush continues to look favorably on the state of U.S. manufacturing and views signing more trade pacts as key to staying competitive, while enforcing trade agreement rules of fair competition. He wants to increase job training for dislocated workers and create “opportunity zones” for areas hit hard by job losses, where corporate taxes would be lowered and housing and training benefits would be increased.

Bush, in a Tuesday campaign stop in Lee’s Summit, Mo., also said he would reform the tax code, pension plan rules and health insurance availability. The President has been slim on details of tax code reforms.

“We’re going to transform those systems…so all citizens are equipped and prepared and thus, truly free, to make your own choices so you can pursue your dreams,” Bush told supporters, according to a transcript.

Jim Chesnutt, a North Carolina textile mill owner and a Republican who hasn’t made up his mind regarding Bush versus Kerry, said, “I’m not hearing the right answers from anyone.”

Chesnutt, president and chief executive of 1,100-worker National Spinning, Washington, N.C., called Kerry’s plan to reduce corporate taxes by 1.75 percent “a token amount” and added that he’s angry at Bush’s expansive trade policies, which he argues are stacked against U.S. producers being competitive. Chesnutt wants a candidate to support curbs on Chinese textile and apparel imports causing U.S. market disruption and better policing of trade agreements, which he said have fallen short under Republican and Democratic administrations.