updated 5/14/2004 7:47:13 PM ET 2004-05-14T23:47:13

President Bush implored college graduates Friday to offer a helping hand to down-and-out Americans, showcasing the kinder, gentler side of his agenda at a time when images of wartime brutality are pouring out of Iraq.

“Many of us find that there is much more to life than getting and keeping,” Bush said at commencement exercises at Concordia University of Wisconsin. America “rejects the ethic of sink or swim,” he said.

“True fulfillment comes with the responsibilities we assume to care for our families and to love a neighbor as we want to be loved ourselves,” Bush told nearly 500 graduating seniors. “This is more than a familiar saying. It is the foundation of a meaningful life.”

Millions raised for campaign
Although his speech was not political, Bush’s travels to Missouri and Wisconsin were heavy with political overtones.

He raised $2.2 million for the Republican Party’s Victory 2004 program, a get-out-the-vote fund, in an antique car museum just outside the St. Louis airport. Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, also left the White House to pick up an additional $420,000 — Cheney in Orlando, Fla., and Card in Portland, Maine.

The trip was Bush’s 17th to Missouri as president, and he predicted that he would carry the state this November, as he did in 2000.

From there, Bush went to Wisconsin for the second time in a week. He lost the state by 6,000 votes in 2000, and he seems determined to capture it this year.

Although many college campuses are hotbeds of anti-war sentiment, the White House’s selection of Concordia University, a conservative Lutheran institution near Milwaukee, all but ensured that there would be no protesters.

He sprinkled his speech with religious references and received a standing ovation when he voiced strong support for U.S. GIs in Iraq, following revelations that U.S. soldiers mistreated some Iraqi prisoners.

First and foremost, the president said, “America needs your efforts and energy in the fight against poverty and despair.”

Kerry campaign charges hypocrisy
Bush’s Democratic rival, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, derided Bush’s commencement advice. “The title of the president’s speech should be ‘Do As I Say, Not As I Do,’” said Phil Singer, a spokesman for Kerry. “George Bush has done nothing to address the fact that there are 3 million more Americans living in poverty since he went to the White House, including 500,000 more children.”

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Government figures show that poverty rose in the first two years of Bush’s administration. Before Bush took office, it had fallen for nearly a decade to 11.3 percent in 2000, its lowest level in more than 25 years.

But poverty rose for a second straight year in 2002, the most recent year for which figures are available, and 1.7 million more people dropped below the poverty line, according to estimates from the Census Bureau .

The Bush administration said the figures were consistent with other periods of recession. The last recession officially ended in November 2001.

‘Love and caring and kindness’
Americans have an obligation to lift up those in need, Bush said.

“A compassionate society does not look away from a man being dragged down by addiction or a mother being abandoned by the father of the child or boys and girls with no role model in life who wonder if anyone cares about them,” he said.

“These personal tragedies are often failures of love, and they must be answered with love, and caring, and kindness,” he said. “Never doubt that you can make a difference.”

Bush wore a black gown to the speech, and he accepted an honorary doctoral degree.

“I kind of like the sound ‘Dr. Bush,’” he said, But referring to his wife, he quickly added, “I don’t think Laura’s going to call me that.”

Friday’s lap to Missouri and Wisconsin was a fresh example of Bush’s strategy to confine his travels this year to states he thinks can tip November’s election. He has visited almost exclusively the 17 battleground states where his campaign is advertising most heavily, as well as states rich with campaign donors.

The president gave a subdued address to big donors near St. Louis. The site was convenient — just outside the gates of the airport — but markedly different from the usual hotel ballrooms where he headlines most fund-raisers. It was inside an antique car museum at Hunter Engineering Co., which makes automotive service equipment.

Bush made his re-election pitch to about 100 donors who sat amid 1930s-vintage Cadillacs, Lincolns and a Packard. The White House staff ensured that cars not made in America, including several Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, were removed from their usual places beforehand.

“I think there’s a lot of reasons to put me back in office for four more years,” Bush said.

“I have a reason to run: We have a war to win. We have a responsibility to spread peace and freedom around the world,” he said.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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