NEW YORK -- After a quick detour to Ohio to rally voters in that battleground state, President Bush made his triumphal landing in New York last night -- and headed straight for a community center in Queens for an appearance with firefighters that was heavy with symbolism from Sept. 11.
At the neighborhood center, which serves an Italian-American community, Bush picked up an endorsement from a firefighters union and held up for cameras an "FDNY" cap -- the symbol of New York firefighters that became well-known to Americans after the terrorist attacks that devastated this city.
Source of inspiration
Bush told the firefighters that he was inspired by some of their brethren, who stood with him at Ground Zero days after the terrorist attacks.
In the room with Bush last night was Bob Beckwith, the firefighter who was next to Bush as the president held a bullhorn in a now-famous photo from atop the rubble of the World Trade Center.
"The inspiration I received from the firefighters on that site is something I'll never forget," the president said last night. "To see the courage and compassion and decency of our fellow Americans during an incredible time of stress has shaped my thinking about the future of this country."
The image of Bush, mingling with firefighters as they ate pizza, was beamed to the convention hall, delighting the Republican faithful.
Struggling at first to find the camera he was supposed to look into, Bush waved to the Madison Square Garden audience, which he will see in person tonight when he will formally accept his party's nomination and send the campaign into its final push toward the Nov. 2 election.
The president began his day at the White House, spending several hours on a teleprompter rehearsing his speech.
He then took off for Columbus, Ohio, where he spoke to a raucous audience inside a downtown arena and closed his stump speech by harking back to the days after Sept. 11.
"None of us will ever forget that week when one era ended and another began," Bush said. "Sept. 14, 2001, I stood in the ruins of the twin towers. It's a day I will never forget."
"Since that day," he said, "I have a duty that has gone on. I wake up every morning trying to figure out how best to protect our country."
On to New York
The crowd in Ohio sent Bush on his way to the sounds of "New York, New York" blaring from loudspeakers.
In Queens, Bush won the backing of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, which includes 20,000 firefighters as members.
Early in the campaign, Bush's opponent, John Kerry, was endorsed by the International Association of Firefighters, the nation's largest firefighters union.
Firefighters have been a fixture at Kerry campaign events, complicating Bush's effort to portray himself as a close ally of the country's first responders.
Nevertheless, the White House and Bush campaign have often displayed the photo of him standing beside Beckwith as a symbol of the way Bush responded to the attacks.
After his brief appearance in Queens, the president was to ride by motorcade to the Waldorf-Astoria in Midtown Manhattan, the usual temporary residence for commanders-in-chief when they visit this city.
This morning, Bush and his wife, Laura, will attend a prayer service in the city. They will then head to Madison Square Garden for a tour of the convention site. Afterward, Bush will return to his hotel suite to put the finishing touches on his acceptance speech.
Bush and Kerry remain in a dead heat, according to new polls.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey released yesterday showed Kerry ahead of Bush 46 percent to 45 percent, but the lead was within the margin of error.
Perhaps more significantly, Bush has seemed to gain ground on Kerry over the past week in some key swing states. A new Gallup poll this week showed Bush ahead of the Massachusetts senator, 48 percent to 46 percent, in Pennsylvania, a virtual must-win state for Kerry. Al Gore won Pennsylvania by 5 per centage points in 2000.
Bush's lead in Pennsylvania is within the margin of error, but he appeared to erase a lead Kerry held there for weeks.