HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – President Bush, armed with new numbers showing a big spike in new jobs, had a little more bounce in his step Friday as he promoted his message of an improving economy in West Virginia.
"This economy is strong, it is getting stronger," Bush told several hundred supporters at Marshall University (search). Earlier Friday, the federal government reported that 308,000 new jobs were created in March.
Bush also defended his tax cuts, a common theme of his recent campaign speeches.
"When a person has more money in their pocket, they're more likely to demand an additional good or service," Bush said, which causes a positive economic chain reaction.
The president also noted that after-tax income is up 10 percent since 2000.
"That's good — you got more money in your pocket, that's a good thing," Bush said. "The tax relief we passed is working; it's making a difference for this economy," he added, pointing to high homeowner rates as one example of how things are looking up.
Bush took his economic message to a state he narrowly won in 2000 and where Democrats are taking him to task for lost jobs.
The employment numbers from the Labor Department (search) show employment rising at the fastest pace in four years, easily outstripping expectations. Gains were widespread across industries.
The nation's unemployment rate bumped up to 5.7 percent at the same time, because more job seekers renewed their searches last month.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan called the jobs report "a powerful confirmation that our economy is growing stronger."
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry was launching a 30-second commercial on Friday that is running in 17 states, including West Virginia. The ad assures Americans that Kerry will create new jobs and work to keep jobs from moving overseas.
But with the good news for the president and stock prices opening higher on Friday, the Bush-Cheney re-election team was quick to dispel Kerry's notions.
"Today's jobs report is evidence that the president's pro-growth policies are working, but there is still more to be done to ensure that every American who wants a job can find one," campaign chairman Marc Racicot said in a statement.
"John Kerry's pessimism about America's growing economy won't create a single job, and his decades-long support for higher taxes, increased regulation and more government spending would derail our economic recovery."
Kerry's campaign shot back, highlighting numbers of jobs lost under Bush.
"Under George Bush, the deficits and the size of government have grown at a record pace as we've lost 2.6 million private sector jobs and 4 million more Americans have lost healthcare," Kerry spokesman David Wade said. "There are reasons to be optimistic, because Americans are choosing a new direction for our country and our economy, and it begins in November when we defeat George Bush."
Bush went to Marshall University to promote a plan to create $250 million in grants for community colleges that partner with employers seeking higher-skilled workers. The overall jobs program would spend $500 million on job training and education programs.
The president said the country needs to match job training with the jobs that are available.
"This is a time of transition," he said. "If you're one of the people worried about the transition we need to make sure there's a plan to help you. ... Technology's changing.
"Across the street from the president's motorcade as he prepared to leave were several hundred protesters, some of them carrying Kerry signs. One sign read, "Where are the jobs?"
After his stop, Bush heads to Georgia to thank some of his biggest campaign donors.
Bush's Lead on Economy Slipping?
The White House has said the economy and the war on terror will be the two big issues in the November elections. The administration argues that the job losses began under President Clinton's watch and were exacerbated by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
But there is evidence that persistent unemployment, despite other signs of a recovering economy, is taking its toll on the president's popularity.
A Los Angeles Times poll conducted during the last three days of March found that 53 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of the economy and 43 percent approve.
Meanwhile, 44 percent of those surveyed said the economy or jobs was the most important issue facing the nation today.
But still, Washington observers say Friday's economic figures are nothing but good news for Bush.
"This job report is very, very welcome ... it's always the last thing to improve in a recovery and it's finally here," Boyden Gray, former White House counsel for George H.W. Bush, told Fox News of Friday's Labor Department numbers. "I think businesses will now feel freer to make more hires for themselves because of the sustainability of the recovery."
But Democrats had a less optimistic take on the report.
"While today is long overdue for American workers, we're a long way from being out of the woods," Vic Fazio, a former Democratic California congressman, told Fox News, noting the higher unemployment rate this month and that the manufacturing sector is still stagnant. "A 5.7 percent [unemployment] rate is still historically high."
The Economy in West Virginia
The president and Kerry are tied among likely voters in West Virginia, according to a recent poll by the American Research Group of Manchester, N.H.
The state's unemployment rate has fallen a full percentage point since last July, to 5.4 percent in February, though that was up slightly from the recent low of 5.2 percent in January.
The legacy of the Bush White House is that more than 20,000 West Virginians have lost their jobs since he became president, Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., wrote in the Charleston Gazette this week.
"Fewer jobs at home. No pension protection. No health care plan. Gambling the future of Social Security and Medicare," wrote Byrd.
West Virginia had the lowest labor force participation rate in the United States last year, 54.6 percent. Many people who simply stopped looking for work were no longer counted among the unemployed.
"We've got a lot of very discouraged workers who have a relatively low level of education and it becomes a real challenge to create workforce development programs for them," said West Virginia University economics professor Tom Witt.
But Republican chairman Kris Warner said West Virginia's biggest problem is "70 years of one-party rule by the Democrats."
"The jobs picture is not due to anything that happened with this president," Warner said. "We've been losing 44 citizens a day every day for the past three decades."
Voter registration in the state favors Democrats over Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin.
Bush's visit to West Virginia is the seventh of his presidency. His last visit was in February.
Fox News' Liza Porteus, James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.