ROSWELL, N.M. – President Bush, focusing on a subject sure to be prominent in his re-election campaign, said Thursday his administration is notching successes in the war against terrorism but will not let up while danger lingers.
"We're making progress, but you need to know we're on the offensive," Bush told some 1,600 emergency workers, law enforcement officials and cadets from the New Mexico Military Institute (search) -- what the president called the "West Point of the West."
Bush came here to close out a two-day, post-State of the Union (search) mission to take top campaign themes directly to voters in states crucial to his re-election. The trip allowed the president several more days of publicity on key topics from his Tuesday night address and presented him in presidential settings while his potential Democratic rivals engaged in the hurly-burly of their New Hampshire primary battle.
On Wednesday, during stops at community colleges in Ohio and Arizona, Bush highlighted the economy and several new job-training initiatives (search) he proposed in the State of the Union speech. All three states, which combine for 35 out of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, saw narrow voting margins in the 2000 election, with Bush losing New Mexico by just 366 votes and barely winning Ohio and Arizona.
In Roswell, Bush delivered an update on his administration's ongoing efforts in the war against Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks -- the topic on which polls show the president is strongest with the public.
He announced that his request for federal spending in the 2005 budget year, which he is due to submit to Congress next month, would propose increasing funding for homeland security across all government agencies by 9.7 percent.
He said the total dollar amount requested would be "more than $30 billion." But without a description of what the White House meant by "government-wide" spending on homeland security, it was impossible, however, to put Bush's new proposal in the context of spending in other years.
For the current 2004 budget year, Bush requested $36.2 billion for the Department of Homeland Security alone, and Congress approved $34.8 billion.
The president also ticked off national security accomplishments under his watch: no new terrorist attacks on American soil, the toppling of dangerous governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the capture of Saddam Hussein and several Al Qaeda leaders.
He did not mention that Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden (search) remains at large, despite a near-constant U.S. manhunt. Nor did Bush dwell on the continuing violence and difficulties in both Iraq and difficulties in Afghanistan. Still, he warned that a threat from terrorism still exists -- making the unspoken suggestion that changing the commander in chief mid-battle wouldn't be wise.
"There's terrorists still plotting against us," he said. "By our will, by our steadfast determination, by our courage, we will prevail in the war, the first war of the 21st century."
Also Thursday while in Roswell, Bush made a brief phone call to the March for Life Fund's abortion protest in Washington. The president gave his strong support to the demonstration, from afar as has become tradition. The rally is held each year on the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.
And, in another sign of the strong political overtones to the trip, Bush made a rare motorcade-route stop to linger with locals on the way out of town. Bounding into the Nuthin' Fancy Cafe, the president hugged a few shocked and delighted restaurant patrons, saying he wanted to help "this lady put some money in her pockets."
"I need some ribs," Bush said from behind the counter, his arm around a diner employee. "I'm hungry."
He refused to answer reporters' questions about the Democratic race and homeland security spending -- saying only that "my job is to secure the homeland and that's what I'm going to do."
The New Mexico stop also gave Bush the chance to pitch the immigration policy overhaul he proposed earlier this month, one which would allow illegal immigrants to temporarily work legally in the United States. With the proposal devised in part with the politics of border states like Arizona and New Mexico -- which hold their Democratic presidential primaries on Feb. 3 -- in mind, Bush also pushed the plan during his Wednesday appearance in Phoenix.
And the president did not leave without jokingly acknowledging what the small southeastern New Mexico city is best known for: as the site suspected 1947 UFO crash (search) and a draw for conspiracy theories about extraterrestrials.
"I understand you have reports this morning of an unfamiliar aircraft," he said to laughter from citizens who have freely adorned their town with images of green aliens. "Don't worry -- it was just me."