ARLINGTON, Va. – President Bush said Tuesday that trade is vital to economic growth and repeated his warning against "economic isolationists" who question free-trade pacts, a thinly veiled criticism of assumed Democratic general-election rival, John Kerry (search).
"As our economy moves forward and new jobs are added, some are questioning whether American companies and American workers are up to the challenge of foreign competition," Bush said during a Commerce Department (search) awards ceremony.
"There are economic isolationists in our country who believe we should separate ourselves from the rest of the world by raising up barriers and closing off markets. They're wrong."
Kerry has been hammering away at Bush for downfalls in the economy during the Texan's tenure, honing in on the lack of new jobs created and the outsourcing of others.
Bush's comments came on the eve of the latest batch of primary contests in the South.
Democratic voters in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas will go the polls Tuesday. Kerry virtually has his party's nomination in grasp and is expected to have a clean sweep. The races offer 465 delegates. If Kerry wins all of them, he's still short of the 2,162 to officially clinch the nomination. There are several super delegates (search) who will support Kerry but not formally until the Democratic National Convention (search) in Boston in July.
Kerry can't officially win enough delegates until Illinois votes next Tuesday. The New Englander traveled to Chicago (search) Tuesday, where he held a town hall meeting blasting the president on health care and the economy. Kerry proposed a new plan to allow the importation of new inexpensive prescription drugs from Canada and chastised the White House for only considering the concept this week.
Republicans called Kerry's attacks outrageous, saying he missed 36 out of 38 votes including final passage on the prescription drug legislation (search) approved earlier this year.
Kerry began Friday at a Florida diner and paid an unscheduled visit to a day care center, striking a warm and fuzzy pose with kids, even as the battle with Bush has turned increasingly nasty.
Kerry has vowed to assemble a legal team and threatened to pre-emptively challenge voting irregularities in the Sunshine State -- where the memory of the 2000 recount (search) drives Democrats crazy to this day.
Kerry also seized on a new report from the Congressional Budget Office saying that the tax cuts included in the president's $2.4 trillion budget for next year would probably have a minimal impact on the nation's $12-trillion-a-year economy.
The Democratic front-runner will return to Washington on Wednesday to meet with numerous congressional leaders and Howard Dean (search) -- and on Thursday with John Edwards (search) -- in a concerted effort, aides say, to unify and rally Democrats, many of whom have spent the last year supporting other candidates.
On another issue, White House officials on Tuesday responded to Kerry criticism that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney (search) won't give enough time and attention to the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"No one's watching the clock," White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters on Tuesday when they pressed him on why Bush is limiting his interview time to one hour for two panel members.
"You have to set parameters when you're talking about a sitting president of the United States, and we believe we set aside a reasonable period of time," McClellan said.
White House officials say the commission has enjoyed access to 2 million documents, as well as hundreds of tapes, computer files and interviews on the topic.
Bush: Enough 'Empty Talk'
Bush's Tuesday charge of economic isolationism is aimed at Kerry even though he was not mentioned by name.
Last week, in Los Angeles, the president said: "My opponent talks about job creation, too, but he's against every one of these job-creating measures. Empty talk about jobs and economic isolation won't get anyone hired."
Kerry supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (search) and world trade deals. On the campaign trail, Kerry has said he would place all trade deals under 120-day review and wants labor and environmental standards in new pacts. He also would require companies to give notice before sending jobs overseas.
With the country having lost more than 3 million manufacturing jobs since mid-2000, Democrats scoff at Bush's claims of job growth and say the administration is insensitive to the plight of the manufacturing sector. The president's critics also argue that free trade (search) has opened American workers to unfair competition from low-wage countries with lax protections of labor rights and the environment.
Bush used the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Awards (search) ceremony Tuesday to sound an upbeat message on the economy, contending that inflation and interest rates are low while the stock market, manufacturing and home ownership are up. The awards were named for the Reagan administration commerce secretary who died in a rodeo accident in 1987. Six companies and one school district were honored for excellence in various sectors, from manufacturing to education.
"Malcolm Baldrige served as commerce secretary in the 1980s at a time when many questioned whether America could remain the world's strongest economy -- he was an optimistic guy," Bush said. "He dedicated himself to proving the skeptics wrong. That kind of confidence in the American economy's strength was justified in his day, and it is justified in our day."
The Kerry campaign responded by conferring its own award on Bush: the "Herbert Hoover Award" for presiding over the worst record on jobs of any president since the Depression.
"Since the president is handing out awards today, we wanted to give him one," said former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, Kerry's campaign chairwoman.
Fox News' Carl Cameron, James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.