NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With President Bush visiting Salt Lake City to address the American Legion today, the Utah capital held one of the anti-war protests that presidential visits often attract. But leading yesterday's protest, in the reddest state in the nation, was the mayor of the state's largest city.
In Salt Lake City, the ruckus surrounding Democratic Mayor Rocky Anderson is seen by many as just "Rocky being Rocky," said Randy Simmons, a political science professor at Utah State University, who is married to one of Anderson's cousins. Still, the protest against the president and his Iraq policy is a reminder that, even in friendly territory, the still-intensifying debate over the war is dominating Bush's presidency.
The Utah Republican Party sponsored radio advertisements around the state denouncing the mayor and those advocating what the party calls "cut-and-run" tactics in Iraq. The mayor's office hired three temporary workers to answer the more than 1,600 calls it received over two days.
Anderson's spokesman said the Republican radio campaign stirred up not just opposition, but also new demonstrations of support for the mayor's anti-Bush views.
The city's position as a Democratic island in a very Republican state notwithstanding, the controversy underscores the extreme sensitivity surrounding the war - not just in more typically liberal communities but in a state where the National Guard has contributed heavily to the force in Iraq, and one that gave Bush 71 percent of its vote two years ago.
That was the greatest percentage of any state in the 2004 election. Polls show that Bush remains more popular in Utah than in any other state.
The political impact of the war is cropping up in multiple corners as the midterm elections approach. Several Republican candidates have accepted Bush's readiness to help them raise money but have found reasons to avoid being photographed in public settings with him.
In Connecticut, Republican Rep. Christopher Shays, once a supporter of the Iraq war, drew headlines last week for saying the United States should consider setting a timetable for withdrawing its troops, a course Bush has opposed.
Anderson, the Salt Lake City mayor, addressed protesters hours before Bush was due to arrive in advance of his speech to the American Legion today. The crowd numbered 5,000 or more, said Crystal Young-Otterstrom of protest sponsor Utahvoices.org. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that about 4,000 attended.
Anderson drew attention a year ago for participating in an anti-Bush rally, but this year's protest prompted more debate, in part because of two days of radio ads launched by the state Republican Party. The advertisements ran Monday and Tuesday on stations throughout the state, said the party's executive director, Jeff Hartley. On some stations, they were broadcast 20 times a day.
"The goal is really just to raise our voice and let the rest of the nation know that Rocky and the rest of his folks do not represent the values of the rest of Utah," Hartley said.
At the same time, he said, with an election approaching, the advertising would stir up fellow Republicans.
"It's easy to be apathetic when you have a 70 percent majority," he said.
Anderson said in a telephone interview yesterday that Republicans "would rather shut down any dissent" than discuss "the facts, which would mean admitting to the outrageous misrepresentation leading us into the war."
"These people have clearly not understood the message of Theodore Roosevelt, who said it was not only unpatriotic and servile to insist on standing behind the president right or wrong, but that it was morally treasonable," Anderson said.
Bush's American Legion address will be the first in a new series of speeches on the battle against terrorism, culminating with his scheduled appearance before the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 19, the White House said yesterday.
Bush said there was nothing political about the forthcoming speeches.
"They're not political speeches," he said outside a restaurant in Little Rock, Ark., near a fundraising reception he attended on behalf of GOP gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson. "They're speeches to make it clear that, if we retreat before the job is done, this nation will become even more in jeopardy."
"These are important times, and I seriously hope people wouldn't politicize these issues that I'm going to talk about. We have a duty in this country to defeat terrorists," the president said.
James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.