Defending the war in Iraq, President Bush said on Independence Day that America is safer because Saddam Hussein is in a prison cell.
The military’s job is “to capture and kill terrorists so we do not have to face them here,” Bush told a cheering crowd outside the West Virginia Capitol. An enthusiastic audience of several hundred people waving American flags chanted, “Four more years!”
In his ninth visit to the state since taking office, Bush made a pitch for support from veterans, who he said have set “a good example for those who have followed ... in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Two Bush opponents, taken out of the crowd in restraints by police, said they were told they couldn’t be there because they were wearing shirts that said they opposed the president. Supporters of Bush’s presumed opponent in November’s election, Kerry supporters attended a picnic across the street from the capitol at state Democratic Party’s headquarters.
Earlier engine trouble on Air Force One delayed the president’s departure from Hagerstown Regional Airport in Maryland, near Camp David, where Bush spent the weekend. A second plane was brought from Andrews Air Force Base to take Bush to West Virginia.
In 2000, Bush became only the fourth Republican since 1932 to carry the state in presidential voting. Recent polls show Bush and Democrat John Kerry running a close race in West Virginia, where voter registration is overwhelmingly Democratic.
Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were focusing this holiday weekend on West Virginia, one of three states on the vice president’s two-day bus tour that also included Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Explaining his actions
The president’s visit is part of a White House effort to explain why removing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein from power and trying to bring democracy to the country was essential to the fight against terrorism. Last week, the United States turned over political control to an interim Iraqi government.
Cheney said in New Orleans last week that Saddam, whom Iraq intends to put on trial, was part of a terrorist threat that had gone largely unchecked before Bush’s presidency.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, 77 percent of West Virginia’s 6,200 National Guard troops have been activated. As a result, the state ranks among the top five in National Guard deployments per capita.
Some 200,000 veterans comprise 15 percent of West Virginia’s population. Thirty-six percent of all male West Virginians fought in World War II, 16 percent in Korea and 20 percent in Vietnam.
Economy a top issueThe economy is also an important election-year issue for West Virginians, and Bush declared, “Our economy is healthy and growing, and that’s good news because more people are finding work every single day. That’s what we want.”
The state’s unemployment rate was 5.2 percent in May, down from 6.4 percent last July.
But the current figure fails to recognize that many people have withdrawn from the labor force because there are no jobs available, said Tom S. Witt, director of West Virginia University’s bureau of business and economic resources.
West Virginia, which went to Bush in 2000, is considered a pivotal state in the 2004 race, its five electoral votes up for grabs.
Political observers note that West Virginia Democrats have more of a conservative perspective, opening the door for Bush.
“If Kerry shores up his base and doesn’t alienate the more conservative Democrats, I think he would have a good shot,” said Kevin Leyden, an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University.