President campaigning for November, with eye on '04

Nearly nonstop visits hit states close in 2000

October 23, 2002|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DOWNINGTOWN, Pa. - If President Bush could earn frequent-flier miles on Air Force One, he would be making a bid for free vacations right now. Bush is on a nearly nonstop political travel spree that will lead up to the Nov. 5 election and take him to up to four states a day. He is stopping mostly in districts where a little presidential pomp might drum up votes for a Republican candidate.

But it is clear just from the schedule - which yesterday included his 15th visit as president to Pennsylvania - that White House officials also have their sights on the presidential election in 2004. They are sending Bush to many states that he won or lost narrowly in 2000.

Speaking to raucous party loyalists near Philadelphia, Bush urged Republicans to "crank up" their turnout on Election Day. He spent two hours here before jetting on to Maine for another Republican pep rally.

"I understand how you win elections," the president said. "And that's when people such as yourself not only go to the polls, but you convince your neighbors to go to the polls. You go to your community centers, your houses of worship, your - wherever you go to hang out, your coffee shops - and you tell your neighbors about their responsibility."

Boosting support

Ostensibly, Bush is here to invigorate the campaigns of Jim Gerlach, a state senator who's seeking an open House seat against a Democrat, Dan Wofford, and for Mike Fisher, who is running for governor against Ed Rendell, a Democratic former mayor of Philadelphia.

Bush hopes to make enough of a difference in some races to help his party keep control of the House, perhaps take over the Senate - and give his agenda a better chance in Congress over the next two years. But analysts see another purpose behind some of Bush's visits: to boost support for himself.

Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, noted, for example, that most contests in this state are pretty well decided.

"So, either Bush is eyeing '04," Madonna said, "or he likes to play golf here."

In his visit yesterday, Bush was playing to a suburban area that will be crucial in his bid to carry the state in two years, Madonna said. Had Bush won this state's 23 electoral votes in 2000 - he lost by 4 percentage points to Al Gore - there would have been no disputed election.

Bill Kitsch, a 28-year-old Republican committeeman, said at the rally that Bush's frequent visits give voters here "a feeling of importance."

"It is critical that Bush start to solidify the base he had in 2000," Kitsch said. "With Pennsylvania in 2004, who needs Florida?"

Not all of Bush's travels have taken him to presidential swing states; he has been a cheerleader and money magnet for Republicans everywhere. This year, Bush has shattered presidential fund-raising records, helping garner about $140 million for candidates in more than 60 fund-raisers.

GAO probe sought

Many Republicans were harshly critical of President Bill Clinton and his busy political travel schedule. But Bush has been just as active. That fact is not lost on Democrats, who have pointed to his busy travel schedule to suggest that Bush is focused more on partisanship than on a struggling economy and the confrontation he has pursued with Iraq.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic whip in the Senate, has called on the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, to investigate Bush's campaign travels and find out how much it is costing taxpayers.

"Apparently, he considers spending time picking up checks from corporate fat cats and smiling for photos with other big donors more important than addressing America's sinking economy," Reid said in a letter.

Administration officials defend Bush's use of taxpayer money for political travel, saying he uses a formula employed by presidents for decades. That formula allocates the costs of a president's trip between his party and the government, depending on how much of the trip is devoted to politics. But no matter the purpose of the trip, taxpayers bear the hefty cost of presidential security and the use of Air Force One.

Mixing work, politics

White House officials stress that Bush is mixing in important presidential work during his politicking. While visiting his ranch in Texas this week, for example, Bush is to meet with President Jiang Zemin of China. And he will travel to Mexico this weekend for an economic summit.

Since taking office, Bush has become an especially familiar face in states where the 2000 presidential vote was tight. Other than visits to his Texas ranch and quick stops in Virginia or Maryland, he has made more stops in Pennsylvania (15) than anywhere else. In second place is Florida (11), according to a CBS News tally.

Next week, Bush is expected to make his fifth visit to West Virginia, a traditional Democratic stronghold that he carried narrowly in 2000.

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