Bush Talks Up Economy in Hard-Hit Arkansas

President Bush on Tuesday sounded the twin themes of a better economy and an unrelenting effort to bring democracy to Iraq, telling hundreds of enthusiastic supporters that his administration will achieve both goals.

"We're now marching to peace," said Bush, who is trying to outflank Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) on the issues of jobs and the war. Kerry has promised to create 10 million jobs if elected. The economy gained more than 300,000 jobs last month, but 1.84 million jobs have been lost during Bush's presidency.

The president was making his fourth trip to a campus in less than two weeks, speaking at South Arkansas Community College (search) in El Dorado, a town of 21,000 people in a region where plant closings and near double-digit unemployment plague the oil, timber and manufacturing economy. El Dorado's jobless rate was 9.1 percent in February. The latest national unemployment rate is 5.7 percent for March.

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Bush narrowly won Arkansas in the 2000 election. His campaign opened its headquarters this week in Arkansas, former President Clinton's home state.

"We want people prepared for the 21st century," Bush declared, saying that the nation's work force needs to stay on the edge of technological change.

"There will be jobs. The question is whether there will be people there to fill those jobs," said Bush, who sat on a stage with half-dozen people involved in training students — young and old — who return to the classroom to learn new skills.

The president promoted his proposal to overhaul the major federal program for vocational education, the Perkins Vocational Education program.

Bush would channel $1 billion in annual funding from that program into a new Secondary and Technical Education program to improve primarily math and science education at vocational schools.

Bush's initiative would require such schools participating in the program to offer four years of English, three years of math and science, and 3.5 years of social studies.

Bush would also establish a public-private partnership in which the government and private enterprises would split the costs of $100 million in grants to low-income students who study math or science.

With riots in Iraq in recent days, Bush defended his war record, saying that he acted on the best intelligence available in arriving at the decision to topple Saddam Hussein and asserting that America is winning in Iraq. He said the U.S. economy is now on an upward track following economic setbacks triggered by the Sept. 11 attacks.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (search), D-Mass., has declared that Iraq has become "George Bush's Vietnam." The Bush campaign dismissed Kennedy as a "hatchet man" for Kerry.

Kerry is suggesting Bush is playing politics by stubbornly adhering to the June 30 date for turning over political control to the Iraqis.

Organized labor has been especially harsh on the job training aspects of Bush's program for the economy, saying that his "rosy rhetoric" doesn't match his record.

"Bush has slashed training programs, allocated fewer resources and trained far fewer — not more — workers in his tenure than during previous administrations," AFL-CIO President John (searchSweeney said.

In recent months, El Dorado officials have had to endure the announced closings of Prescolite lighting company and Columbian Carbon chemical plant, with a total loss of more than 160 jobs.

"It's very slow. There are not a lot of jobs here," El Dorado Mayor Bobby Beard said. "We're lucky that we've got plenty of high-end paying petrochemical jobs that are helping us get by."