President Bush opened a tour by bus through two Midwestern states he narrowly lost during the 2000 election, carrying a message Friday of job gains amid an economic upswing he contends has been sparked by lower taxes.

The president came here after two difficult days dealing with the international fallout from the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers. Bush issued a personal apology for the soldiers' conduct.

The one-day bus tour of the three Mississippi River towns — Dubuque, Iowa, and Prairie du Chien and LaCrosse in Wisconsin — offers the Republican incumbent valuable face time with voters in states where recent polls show him in a dead heat with Democratic rival John Kerry (search). Bush rode the bus through parts of Michigan and Ohio earlier in the week.

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Turning to another agenda item, Bush planned to argue that the jobs picture is showing signs of improvement. The national unemployment rate dipped from 5.7 to 5.6 percent in April as employers added 288,000 jobs to their payrolls, the Labor Department (search) reported Friday. It was the eighth straight month that payrolls have risen.

"Today's unemployment report is further confirmation our economy is strong and continues to grow stronger and the tax relief the president advocated and passed is working," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Although Bush likely will be the first president since the Great Depression (search) to have lost jobs under his watch, hiring this year has helped shrink those losses to about 1.5 million.

Kerry's campaign blames Bush for the long slide into joblessness. The manufacturing sector ended 42 straight months of job losses in February, posting 27,000 new jobs for the year.

Iowa and Wisconsin together have lost 110,000 manufacturing jobs under Bush, including 80,000 in Wisconsin.

The importance of the two states in Bush's re-election effort is reflected in a travel schedule that has taken him to Iowa 10 times as president, most recently when he promoted his tax cuts on Tax Day, April 15. He last visited Wisconsin on March 30, his ninth presidential visit to the Badger State.

Iowa's unemployment rate for March — 4.1 percent, the most recent figure available — has tracked below the national average, which stood at 5.7 percent last month. Yet unemployment in the state is up from the 2.9 percent rate at the start of Bush's term.

David Redlawsk, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said the employment issue isn't "quite as intense" in the state as it is in the Rust Belt states.

"While companies in Iowa cut back," Redlawsk said, "it wasn't the same as if it were Ohio and Michigan," where Bush went on the first leg of his campaign bus tour Monday and Tuesday.

On the other side of the Mississippi in Prairie du Chien and LaCrosse, "unemployment has risen dramatically during the Bush administration and they have yet to see the rebound," said state Democratic Party spokesman Seth Boffel, who added that strength in the job market has been centered in Milwaukee and Madison.

Wisconsin's jobless rate was 5.1 percent in March, below the 5.8 percent figure of eight months earlier. The rate was 3.9 percent at the start of Bush's presidency.