MERRIMACK, N.H. – President Bush, taking the New Hampshire political stage all for himself after the Democrats decamped, defended his economic record Thursday against his rivals' charges that he has favored the rich and let 2.3 million jobs slip away.
"You can tell I'm upbeat," Bush said, almost drowned out by cheers. "And I got reason to be. Not only do the numbers say things are looking pretty good, the American people are telling me that they feel pretty good."
From New Hampshire, Bush headed to Connecticut to raise $1.1 million for a re-election campaign well on the way to its fund-raising goal of $170 million. That's just for efforts between now and the official start of the general election campaign in September.
There was no sign of Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland (search) at the Greenwich fund-raiser. Rowland is state chairman of Bush's campaign but, as the subject of a federal corruption investigation, decided to stay away.
A fund-raiser host and Bush's cousin, Debbie Stapleton, perhaps inadvertently contradicted the president's preference for stressing his ties to down-home Texas over his membership in an old, wealthy New England-based family.
"You may associate him with the Lone Star State, boots and spurs, but I know him in his earlier Connecticut days of family gatherings, Yale Bulldogs and Old Blue," she said. "Please welcome my cousin, Connecticut's own native son, born in New Haven, with deep family roots in Greenwich, the grandson of former Connecticut Sen. Prescott and Dorothy Bush — President George W. Bush."
Bush took it in stride, making fun of himself as he noted the presence of former Yale University classmates. "They were the ones who invented shock and awe when they heard I was president," he said. "They're all fine lads — they themselves were C-students."
Making his fifth visit to New Hampshire as president, Bush said the economy was rebounding under his watch — and that he was determined to see it through to even better days.
Aides insisted there was no political component to the choice of New Hampshire to press that message. However, they offered no other reason the president chose to come here to have the last word on the economy just two days after the state held its first-in-the-nation primary.
New Hampshire is seen by Bush political advisers as a crucial prize despite its relatively small cache of four electoral votes. The president won the state in 2000, but by only a slim margin. And since it was his only victory in the Northeast, it is a state the campaign wants to hold on to.
The topic of the economy is a weak spot for Bush among the independent voters who make up a sizable share of the electorate here. Four years ago, the state had an unemployment rate of around 2 percent. Now, though it remains well below the national level, the unemployment rate has increased to 4.1 percent as New Hampshire has shed 20,000 manufacturing jobs.
But alongside Bush at Fidelity Investments on Thursday, six local workers and business owners gave firsthand accounts of the benefits they are realizing from the president's tax cut packages.
"I want to thank you for the honor and dignity which you have given to the White House," added Louise Hickey, a Fidelity employee who celebrated the $1,100 in 2003 taxes she said she was saving under the cuts.
"They've made my case," Bush said as he wrapped up the session.
Bush's remarks and the accompanying supportive testimonials countered months of pummeling of the president's economic record from the Democratic candidates, now moved on to other primary-holding states. Though the president did not mention any of his potential rivals by name, he acknowledged more awareness of the goings-on of the political season than has previously been his tendency.
"It's nice to be back. I understand there's been some activity in the state of New Hampshire recently," he said to laughter.
He also volunteered a defense against the criticism of his decision to invade Iraq, which has intensified from Democrats on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill since the United States' former chief weapons hunter said he had concluded the Iraqi rulers did not have the weapons of mass destruction Bush had cited.
"We'll debate about the decision," Bush said. "I look forward to those discussions with the American people. I'm absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do and I look forward to explaining it to the American people."
On his way out of town, Bush continued to look like a candidate. He made a surprise stop at a newly opened chocolatier where he chatted up workers and complimented owners Theresa and Michael Anderson for "living their dream, making good product."