Bush shifting focus for '02

President turning away from the war to domestic agenda

Touring to push message

Economy, tax cuts, energy among topics for key election year

January 08, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In the clearest sign that he is ready to delve back into election politics and aggressively push his domestic agenda, President Bush is leaving today on a three-state tour where he will appear more as a campaigner than as a wartime leader.

The trip comes on the heels of stops during the weekend in California and Oregon, where Bush sternly warned Democrats against trying to roll back his tax cut from last year and accused them of spoiling bipartisan harmony in a time of war.

The president lashed out again yesterday after returning to Washington from a two-week vacation at his Texas ranch.

"We ought to unify around some sensible policy and not try to play politics with tax relief or, for that matter, economic stimulus packages," he said. Anyone who would suggest reversing tax cuts during a recession, he said, "must be reading another kind of economic textbook."

The new year, it seems, has ushered in a return to politics as usual in Washington. And along with it, a possible theme of the 2002 election season is taking shape: whether Bush's across-the-board tax cut eroded budget surpluses and worsened the nation's recession.

Republicans argue that further tax cuts would lift America out of recession; Democrats say that step would compound an error that caused hardship in the first place.

Even as Bush points the finger at others for inciting partisan squabbles, he has joined the fray. And his choice of venues today shows that the president is thinking about how best to secure his political future. To sign into law his education reform bill, Bush will stop this morning in Ohio, which is likely to be a key swing state in the 2004 presidential election.

The president will then fly to New Hampshire, site of the nation's first presidential primary, which he lost in 2000 to Sen. John McCain of Arizona. Bush will meet with Republican donors and party leaders, and speak about how his education bill offers parents new options to transfer their children out of failing public schools.

The president will finish his day in Boston, in the home state of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat and veteran education reformer who helped broker a compromise that enabled Bush's education bill to gain passage.

Big speech, crucial votes

By hop-scotching around the country in the weeks before his State of the Union address, set for Jan. 29, Bush is following the path of earlier presidents. His predecessors often used such trips to test and refine themes that would become part of their speeches to the nation.

Political analysts also take Bush's busy itinerary as evidence that he is prepared to spend a bit less time on the war against terrorism to begin focusing more on politics, something presidents typically do in a midterm election year.

With the House and Senate closely divided, either party could secure control of either or both chambers once the votes have been tallied in November. That means the success of Bush's remaining agenda could rest on the outcome of midterm elections, which he might help sway by influencing just a handful of races.

"This president is facing an election year when Congress is up for grabs," said Tom Korologos, a longtime Republican lobbyist. "And he knows how bad it can be when your party loses control of the Senate."

Korologos said Bush's appearances could help pick up crucial votes for members of Congress as well as for the president in 2004. When the president visits Ohio, Korologos said, news organizations from all over the upper Midwest tend to run positive coverage "not filtered by the Eastern liberal establishment press."

Jake Siewert, a White House spokesman under President Bill Clinton, recalled that his boss often visited New Hampshire around the time of a State of the Union speech.

"This is a sign of some sort of normalcy," Siewert said. "New Hampshire became a place we'd regularly go to, if just to talk about improvement in the economy. It's where everyone gets a snapshot of how America is doing, and campaign themes get drafted there."

The White House has taken a defensive posture to fend off criticism that Bush is acting partisan at the very moment when he is urging bipartisanship.

Bush has framed his positions as vital to America's health, seeking to raise suspicions about his Democratic critics and hinting that they should be more supportive during wartime. He sometimes calls his proposal to stimulate the economy an "economic security" plan, for example.

"I'm a proud party man," Bush said Saturday in Oregon. "But I'm American first, and that's what we ought to be dealing with when it comes to legislation. There are troubling signs that some in the nation's capital want to go back to the old ways. And I don't think we ought to let them do that."

Bush faces pressure from his party to begin helping Republican members of Congress in their squabbles with Democrats and to begin campaigning for lawmakers up for election in November.

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