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Stearns checks in at home

Citrus County's congressman came to town Thursday and asked the people about their concerns. Predictably, Cliff Stearns heard plenty about health care, the nation's deficit and defense spending.

Stearns agreed that the country needs change in those areas. His solutions includecurtailing federal spending.

He directed his comments to separate groups in Beverly Hills, Crystal River, Inverness and Hernando during a series of town meetings. The Ocala Republican, who is up for re-election in November, said he has conducted 26 such gatherings in the past month and a half.

Though the sessions are confrontational and draining, Stearns said they are a valuable part of his public service.

"I've found out about tons of stuff from town meetings," he said.

In Inverness, where about 50 people attended the meeting at the new courthouse, people immediately asked about the rising costs of prescription drugs and the nation's increasing health-care problem.

One woman told Stearns that she saw socialized medicine in action when she lived in Hungary.

"I can tell you it does not work," the woman said. Her suggestion: Crack down on doctors, whose inflated rates make health care unaffordable.

Stearns said all Americans have the right to health care. He does not support a socialized system; rather, he said money spent on medical needs can be directed more efficiently.

He lines up behind President Bush's proposal to offer vouchers and tax breaks to help Americans obtain health coverage.

"I think what we need to have is an American program," he told the crowd.

On the deficit, he recommended reduced spending and significant _ though not drastic _ cuts in the military budget.

For example, he agreed with Bush's decision to curtail production of the B-2 bomber. But Stearns still advocates financing the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Most of all, Stearns emphasized that creating jobs is the most important step government can take to spur the economy.

Stearns moved easily at the Inverness meeting, walking down the aisles of the second-floor room where the County Commission meets. He quickly endeared himself to the crowd by talking about a problem they shared: traffic on State Road 44.

Stearns was about 10 minutes late for his Inverness meeting; the drive from the Beverly Hills meeting, where he said he had been "grilled" by the crowd, took a little longer than he expected.

"I thought he was forthcoming. I just appreciate him taking his time to come around," Inverness resident Gene Mason said after the meeting.

But even Stearns had trouble fielding one question.

A man asked why the government taxes unemployment compensation. Stearns rocked from his heels to his toes and looked toward the ceiling.

"Anybody else want to answer that?" he asked. "I can't answer. There are some questions I can't answer."

One man said he expected Stearns and other government leaders to know what their people need and not rely on citizen comments at town meetings.

The crowd laughed as Stearns prepared to answer.

"Sir," Stearns replied, "you are the first person to tell me I should have the attributes of God."

Information from Times files was used in this report.