President Bush used a campaign bus tour Monday to rally support for the war in Iraq and energize grass-roots support in a swing state where polls show he and Democrat John Kerry are neck-in-neck.
“I’m not changing my mind,” Bush said, rebutting critics who question the administration’s plan to transfer sovereignty to Iraqis next month and worry that U.S. troops will be in the Middle East for years.
“We’ll always honor those who sacrificed for our freedom,” he said. “We will not allow them to die in vain. Iraq will be free.”
Election Day is six months off, but the president is barnstorming across the battlegrounds of Michigan and Ohio in a sightseeing-style coach — eight wheels and red, white and mostly blue.
By midday, his convoy of about eight buses was rolling through a voter-rich triangle along the southern flank of Michigan, a state demoralized by the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs.
The buses, which were to stop in Kalamazoo and the Detroit suburb of Sterling Heights, were emblazoned with the words “Yes, America Can” — a slogan meant to inspire confidence that the nation’s economy can be revitalized, its soil can be made safe from terrorists, and its communities can be stronger.
Accompanied by first lady
Accompanied by his wife, Laura, Bush began the tour in Niles, in Michigan’s southwest corner. “You think it’s all right if I take off my jacket?” he asked supporters as he grabbed the microphone in a high school gym. “We’re not in Washington any more.”
The Democratic National Committee planned a “Mission Not Accomplished” counter-tour in Michigan and Ohio to “highlight what Bush has failed to do on the economy and homeland security,” DNC spokesman Jano Cabrera said.
Democrats at news conferences in Ohio and Michigan plan to argue that Bush’s economic policies have lost jobs, Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley said Monday. Worse, O’Malley said, the administration has failed to invest enough in protecting the country, which he said amounts to playing “Russian roulette with the economy.”
Bus tours are a staple of political campaigns, but they usually come late in the game.
Bush campaigned in battleground states including Ohio by bus in July 2000 and in Florida that October. This year he is aboard months earlier, ushering in an intense phase in his struggle against Kerry. The Democratic challenger toured four battleground states, including Michigan and Ohio, by bus last week.
To wring the most exposure possible out of the trip, Bush will conduct three round-table interviews with Michigan and Ohio journalists over two days.
Bush lost both the primary and general election in Michigan in 2000, and he is determined not to allow a repeat. Monday marks his 13th visit to the state, which offers 17 electoral votes, as president.
Yet voters remain about equally split in their preference for Bush or Kerry. In a Michigan poll last month, 47 percent said they favored Kerry, while 45 percent preferred the president, with 8 percent undecided.
Tuesday, Stage Two of Bush’s bus tour runs north-to-south down through Ohio, with 20 electoral votes. It starts in the Toledo suburb of Maumee and ends in Cincinnati — the same city where he finished up his five-state bus tour in July 2000.
It marks Bush’s 16th visit to Ohio, a state no Republican has won the White House without carrying and one that polls show is essentially split between him and Kerry.
The town-hall appearances are not free-ranging sessions with a cross-section of voters. Instead, organizers will permit people who have benefited from the president’s tax-cut policies to ask him questions.
On Friday, the president embarks on a similar tour through Iowa and Wisconsin, two fiercely competitive states he lost by a combined 11,000 votes in 2000.
Protesters in Kalamazoo will greet Bush along Interstate 94 with life-size silhouettes of war casualties.