Democratic presidential contender John Kerry launched a three-day campaign bus trip through the Midwest Friday, a key battleground area in the November election. Meanwhile, President Bush hailed improving numbers on job creation as evidence that the U.S. economy is getting stronger.

Senator Kerry opened a three-state tour in Minnesota to highlight his plan to strengthen the small towns and farm communities of rural America.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee also plans to make stops in Wisconsin and Iowa over the Independence Day holiday, with all three states looming as important battlegrounds in the Bush-Kerry showdown in November.

"We are not just celebrating a day, we are celebrating the sound and the spirit of America," he said. "It is the promise of the American dream and it is the reason that we have gathered here on a beautiful day because on November 2 of this year, four months from now, that sound, that spirit, that promise from the heartland will renew our country again."

Senator Kerry could announce his vice presidential running mate as early as next week. Most of the speculation so far has focused on three potential candidates, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack.

At the White House Friday, President Bush hailed the latest employment news that showed the economy added about 112,000 new jobs last month. That total was significantly less than what economists had expected, but Mr. Bush told a group of entrepreneurs that it is the latest sign that the U.S. economy is headed in the right direction.

"This economy of ours is steady and strong, it is steady and strong," the president said. "It is steady and strong, which means people are going back to work. 1.5 million jobs [added] since last August. That is steady growth."

Also in Washington Friday, independent candidate Ralph Nader told a news conference that he is the only real alternative to the two major party candidates because he refuses to accept campaign contributions from corporations and other special interest groups.

"Basically, the reason is that the two parties are proxies for the corporate government here in Washington," he said. "They are the ones who are running the show and the two parties are competing with corporate cash to see who is going to win and come to Washington to take orders from their corporate paymasters."

But the Nader campaign had a setback in Arizona, where Democrats organized a successful effort to keep his name off the presidential ballot, something they are expected to try in other states as well. Democrats fear Mr. Nader could siphon away enough votes from Mr. Kerry in certain key states to swing the election to President Bush.