updated 7/16/2004 12:09:16 PM ET 2004-07-16T16:09:16

President Bush on Friday urged aggressive law enforcement to combat the crime of human trafficking, as the president zeroed in on a critical section of Florida’s electorate that could tip the state to Bush or John Kerry in November.

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“Human life is the gift of our Creator. It should never be for sale,” Bush told a Justice Department conference with participants including the president’s brother, Jeb, Florida’s governor.

Bush’s remarks at the first-ever national training conference on human trafficking address an issue of vital concern to Evangelical Christians, one of the most important components of Bush’s political base nationally. Conservative religious groups around the country have helped focus the White House’s attention on trafficking. Florida is one of five states that have passed laws against human trafficking.

Kerry’s campaign criticized Bush, saying the Clinton administration focused significant attention on the issue and that Bush waited too long to submit an international protocol against trafficking to the U.S. Senate.

Human traffickers bring as many as 17,500 people into the United States every year, trapping them in slavery-like conditions for forced sex, sweatshop labor and domestic servitude, the Bush administration says. As many as 800,000 people were trafficked across borders worldwide in the last year, 80 percent of them women.

“You’re in a fight against evil and the American people are grateful for your dedication and service,” the president told the conference. He said the administration’s approach is to combine stiff prison terms for the traffickers combined with compassion and care for the victims.

'George Bush has dragged his heels'
Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer said, “Just as he’s waited three long years to deal with addressing homeland security and fixing our intelligence problems, George Bush has dragged his heels on this important issue.”

The White House says the president has long been interested in stopping human trafficking, promoting a $300 million program to support anti-trafficking strategies and calling on the United Nations last year to raise the issue high on its agenda. The site of the three-day meeting, the hotly contested Tampa area, narrowly went to Bush in 2000 and it is Ground Zero for the state of Florida in the November election, said University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus.

On his way out of Tampa, the president, daughter Barbara and brother Jeb stopped off at La Tropicana Cafe and greeted the lunchtime customers who applauded and posed for pictures.

“If you get on TV in Tampa you reach one-quarter of all the registered voters in the state,” said MacManus. She said one in every five voters in the 10-county Tampa media market is unaffiliated with either political party.

The Kerry campaign says it has been redirecting some of its ad money to states like Florida.

Bush also addresses a campaign rally Friday in Beckley, W.Va., one week after Kerry rallied an estimated 4,500 supporters at the county airport just outside town. Bush was in West Virginia for the Fourth of July, addressing a campaign rally on the steps of the state capitol.

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