CHARLESTON, S.C. – President Bush touted his administration's efforts to keep dangerous cargo out of the country Thursday, highlighting proposals to push port-security spending up by 13 percent over last year.
Bush's visit to the Port of Charleston (search) was a political postscript to the Democratic presidential primary that took place in South Carolina on Tuesday and gave Sen. John Edwards (search), D-N.C., his first victory. Many Bush aides fear Edwards could give Bush a strong challenge in the backbone of Bush's support, the South.
With the Democrats packed up and gone, Bush used the visit to this state he won decisively in 2000 to draw attention to what the aides believe is a political strong suit: the war on terrorism.
Bush spoke with the Charleston Harbor at his back, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter parked just behind him to reinforce his message. The White House directed the ship's captain to reposition slightly just before the president spoke.
"This is one of the busiest container ports in our country, it's an important hub of commerce," Bush said, his suit coat and hair raked by stiff winds. "We will make sure that not only is the port strong for economic reasons, we will make sure that the port defends the people -- is ready to defend against the threats of a new era, that this port is secure and safe for not only the people of South Carolina but for the people of the United States of America."
The White House said Bush was proposing to spend $1.9 billion through the Department of Homeland Security, an amount it said represented a 13 percent increase over spending in the current budget year. Of that, $102 million would go to the Coast Guard to help it implement security standards for ships, port facilities and "critical offshore platforms."
Bush also gave a broad defense of his decision to invade Iraq, on a day when his CIA director, George Tenet (search), gave a speech striking back at critics of prewar intelligence. Bush's chief weapons inspector, David Kay (search), concluded there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, contrary to Bush's warnings.
"America confronted a gathering threat in Iraq," Bush said. "The dictatorship of Saddam Hussein was one of the most brutal, corrupt and dangerous regimes in the world. For years the dictator funded terrorists, and gave reward money for suicide bombings."
Bush said Saddam is today "sitting in a prison cell, and he will be sitting in a courtroom to answer for his crimes."
But, he conceded, "As the chief weapons inspector has said, we have not yet found the weapons we thought were there." Bush added that inspectors have found possible evidence of weapons programs.
"Knowing what I knew then and knowing what I know today, America did the right thing in Iraq," Bush said. The line drew long applause from Bush's audience of military personnel and cadets.
"The liberation of Iraq removed an enemy of this country and made America more secure," he said.
Bush is trying to rebound from a spate of bad news, including the failure to find banned weapons in Iraq and soaring budget deficits -- issues that are affecting his public approval ratings.
Two polls released Monday showed Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry (search) led Bush decisively in head-to-head matchups. The Massachusetts senator was leading Bush 54-46 in a Gallup poll and 51-43 in a national poll by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Both polls were taken over the weekend.
The president is itching to strike back at Kerry, the Massachusetts senator who has been sharply critical of Bush's decision to invade Iraq. Bush wants to put his own national-security performance on display against Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War hero.
White House officials maintained their standard denials that Bush's trip had anything to do with politics.
"This is an official trip. The president is making official remarks," said White House spokesman Taylor Gross.