APPLETON, Wis. – President Bush said Tuesday he saw signs that Wisconsin's economy is stirring back to life, crediting trade and tax cuts as key factors and painting Democrat John Kerry (search) as the enemy of both.
This state has lost 80,000 manufacturing jobs since Bush took office, but he pointed to a brightening employment picture. The unemployment rate dropped from 5.8 percent in February 2003 to 5.2 percent last month. Bush did not mention that the current unemployment rate rose slightly from the month before.
"Wisconsin is helping lead the growth of this country," Bush told a Republican-friendly audience of Chamber of Commerce (search) members in this conservative city. Thanks to free-trade policies, "farms, factories and offices are shipping high-quality goods all across America and all throughout the world," he said.
Without mentioning Kerry's name, Bush said his opponent would "build walls around America" with a call to "reconsider free-trade agreements." Kerry voted for NAFTA (search) but wants to subject portions of it to environmental and labor reviews.
It was the ninth time Bush has visited Wisconsin, which he lost by fewer than 6,000 votes in 2000.
Bush has carefully tailored his recent travels to states where the presidential race is expected to be close: New Mexico, which he lost by 366 votes; Arizona, which he won by fewer than 100,000; and New Hampshire, the lone state he won in the Northeast.
Friday, he travels to West Virginia, which he narrowly won in 2000 and where polls show him tied with Kerry.
All of those trips, like the visit here, were financed by taxpayers, not Bush's re-election campaign. The White House dubbed them "official" visits, meaning the campaign does not chip in.
Bush chose to visit Appleton, where the longtime cornerstone of the local economy, the paper industry, has lost hundreds of jobs in recent months. He spoke in an art-deco hall called the Kimberly-Clark Theater, in honor of the local paper giant.
The president said he felt the pain of those stung by the bad economy.
"You ask any business leaders here, they can tell you what it's like to try to manage during the recession," Bush said. "There's uncertainty, the workers are getting anxious, sometimes you have to lay some people off. Recession is tough for a country to deal with."
In a shot at Kerry, the president said, "Tax and spend is the enemy of job creation."
Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton (search), a Democrat who supports Kerry, said Bush should address the loss of jobs since he took over the White House.
"Appleton, coincidentally, is the home of Harry Houdini (search)," Lawton said. "We're wondering where the jobs disappeared to."
"George Bush again today blamed everybody but himself for the nation's poor economy," Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said. "They have every excuse in the world for what's gone wrong and not a single solution to make it right. John Kerry has a plan to create 10 million jobs and put the economy back on track."
Hundreds of anti-Bush demonstrators protested along his motorcade route, chanting, "Bush go home!" They held signs that read, "Bush: No Millionaire Left Behind" and "Help Create Jobs. Lay Off George Bush."
Protesters greeted him again when he made an unannounced stop at the annual Governor's Conference on Emergency Management, though the reception was warmer inside.
"I don't care about your politics. What I do care about is the fact that you're serving," Bush told an audience of first responders.
Bush said the nation is living in dangerous times but told his listeners his policy was to "get them before they try to get us."
Bush sought to focus attention on his economic prescriptions after more than a week in which news coverage on his administration has been dominated by the Sept. 11 commission and his performance leading up to the attacks.
After resisting for weeks, Bush relented Tuesday morning and agreed to let his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, testify under oath before the panel. Bush was to speak about his decision upon returning to the White House Tuesday afternoon.