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Bush Campaign Trail Stops at White House

Enmeshed in his re-election campaign, President Bush rarely spends a full day at the White House. But even when he does, presidential politics and campaign pitches remain close at hand.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Enmeshed in his re-election campaign, President Bush rarely spends a full day at the White House. But even when he does, presidential politics and campaign pitches remain close at hand.

Wednesday marked the president's first full day in town since Aug. 2, but it was not a down day from the campaign against Democratic rival John Kerry.

Eager to win support from Hispanic voters, Bush opened the East Room of the White House for a concert and reception honoring Hispanic Heritage Month. Hispanics are the nation's largest minority and the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. Bush won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote four years ago and aims to win at least 40 percent this year.

"I'm proud of your heritage, I'm proud of the ancestry, I'm proud to call Latinos Americans and I'm proud to be your president," Bush told hundreds of Hispanic guests in an address sprinkled with a few words of Spanish.

The president also attended a private luncheon with members of a committee raising money for his campaign, and House and Senate candidates.

"He's campaigning 90 percent of the time and when he has events in the White House, even though they are not considered campaign events, they are campaign events," said James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. "And the honoring of Hispanic month is an example of that."

Some presidents _ such as Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon _ used a "Rose Garden strategy" that emphasized bill-signings and official events that kept them at the White House and drew attention to their stature as president. But Bush has concentrated his energy on the road, traveling at a more frenetic pace than President Clinton, who himself had traveled more than other presidents.

Given the public's unhappiness about Iraq and the economy, the Rose Garden approach held little appeal for Bush.

"What seems clear to me is that Bush is not running as an incumbent," said Thomas Mann, a presidential analyst at the Brookings Institution. "He knows that if the election is framed as a referendum on the incumbent, he will probably lose. And therefore what he's been doing is trying to focus the campaign on Kerry."

In the 44 days before his stop at the White House on Wednesday, Bush had visited 21 states, including three stays at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and time at his family's home on the Maine coast. Most of the travel was focused on the dozen or so states where Bush and Kerry are fighting hardest _ six trips to Ohio, five to Pennsylvania, four each to Iowa, Florida, Michigan and West Virginia, and twice to Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada and Wisconsin.

"Listen, they started running for re-election on Jan. 21 of 2001," said Mann. "The trips that he's made are strategic. He's been focusing on key battleground states from the very beginning."

When Kerry takes a day off from the campaign, he usually doesn't attract attention _ except when photographers catch him doing something like windsurfing or riding his bicycle. But the White House gives Bush an intense media focus that tracks everywhere he goes and everything he says in public.

In his speech to the Hispanic audience, Bush reached out to residents of hurricane-threatened Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. Standing before television cameras, he said, "We pray that the storm passes as quickly as possible, without any loss of life or loss of property." He said he promised the governors of each state that Washington is ready to help.

"The fact that he is president makes sure that the local media covers wherever he goes," said Thurber. "He certainly can use the presidency to help himself immensely to get publicity and free earned media and help him get re-elected."

Bush's day at the White House brought him attention through other means. His press secretary, Scott McClellan, had two briefings, one of them televised live briefly. With the White House emblem behind him, McClellan used the opportunity to sharply attack Kerry's campaign and his Democratic supporters.

Separately, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson put aside any pretense of nonpartisanship at a government event to criticize Kerry for his recent attacks on the administration's management of Medicare. Kerry and other Democrats have blamed Bush for a recently announced 17 percent increase in Medicare premiums for doctor visits.

HHS spokesman Bill Pierce said Thompson's comments were justified as a response to constant Democratic attacks on the Medicare law.


EDITOR'S NOTE _ Terence Hunt has covered the White House since the Reagan presidency.