WASHINGTON – President Bush arrives in California Thursday to start a two-day event in which he will declare an end to major combat in Iraq and later talk up his economic program in the liberal-leaning San Francisco Bay area.
Bush's sixth presidential visit to the state he lost by 1.3 million votes in 2000 marks a turning point, as his focus shifts from fighting in Iraq to economic and national security -- the twin themes of his emerging re-election campaign.
"This really, to me, is the opening shot in his effort to win California in 2004," said veteran GOP strategist Ken Khachigian.
"For him to embark on this political season, which starts earlier and earlier, he needed to be able to invoke the fact that we were no longer in a shooting war," said Khachigian, who wrote speeches for Presidents Reagan and Nixon.
Bush's military address will come aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (search) as it steams toward San Diego Thursday evening.
He will spend the night on board and depart Friday before the carrier pulls into port. Later Friday Bush will meet with Silicon Valley CEOs and address 1,500 workers and guests at Santa Clara's United Defense Industries, (search) a defense contractor that developed the Bradley fighting vehicles used in Iraq.
The Silicon Valley has been hard-hit by the economic downturn.
"In a valley that has seen 194,000 painful layoffs in 30 months, any words from the president about ways to improve our economy and put families back to work would be welcome news," said Carl Guardino, president and chief executive of the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group. (search)
Nearby San Francisco was the location of some of the nation's most visible anti-war protests, and activists were planning a major demonstration for Friday.
"Every time the president's come to California he's gone to parts of the state that might not have voted for him, because he's come as president of all the people," said Gerry Parsky, Bush's top California adviser.
"I think it's a tribute to the fact that this president cares about all Californians and particularly cares about Californians who have lost their job or have not been able to obtain a job," Parsky said.
Bush was not making any fund-raising stops, and Republicans said it was not a political trip. But a year-and-a-half before the 2004 election, party officials were beginning to discuss Bush's prospects for winning California and its motherlode of 55 electoral votes.
The president enjoyed strong support from Californians for the war, his approval rating stood at 61 percent here in a Field Poll (search) earlier this month - around 10 points below his nationwide standing - and he beat a generic Democratic nominee 45 percent to 40 percent. Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' approval rating, meanwhile, hit an all-time low of 27 percent this month.
Many White House officials privately question whether Bush could capture a state he lost to Al Gore by 12 percentage points, where Democrats control every statewide office and outnumber Republicans 44 percent to 35 percent. Publicly, Republicans insist Bush intends to travel here frequently and aim to win.
"I think California can be a very competitive state for President Bush in 2004. It won't be easy, and there's a lot of work that has to be done before that, but it is definitely within reach," said Mindy Tucker, former spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee now stationed in California as a counselor to the state GOP.
It's a prospect Democrats dismiss.
"Bush is a moron, he doesn't understand the economy, he has no relation to California and he's going down in November 2004," said Bob Mulholland, spokesman for the state Democratic Party.