Trying to counter the attention that Democratic rival John Kerry (search) is paying to Louisiana, President Bush (search) on Friday defended his administration's efforts in Iraq as he combined a commencement address with fund-raising in a state he won comfortably in 2000.

Stressing the need to serve society in remarks aimed at projecting the image of strong leadership, Bush received an enthusiastic welcome from the faculty and 3,200-member graduating class of Louisiana State University (search). 

"One of the ways to honor freedom is to serve freedom," Bush declared, saying his goal is "a free and democratic Iraq." Tying Iraq's stability to U.S. security, Bush said, "We will ... defend the freedom and security of this nation."

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Bush was awarded an honorary doctorate in science and cited by the university for having led the nation at "one of the most perilous times in its history."

After his appearance on the LSU campus, Bush was heading to the New Orleans suburb of Metairie to speak to Republican Party donors.

The Kerry campaign has unexpectedly put conservative-leaning Louisiana in play, and Bush's re-election campaign is responding in kind. The state is one of 19 targeted by Kerry with a $25 million TV advertising buy, and he has visited three times in the past two months. Bush has responded with advertising, too.

Kerry's advisers think Louisiana and its nine electoral votes have become more attractive to Democrats in recent years, particularly because of manufacturing job losses there under Bush's administration.

"Bush is not a slam-dunk" to win Louisiana, despite a lead of 10 percentage points to 15 percentage points in state polls, said LSU political science professor Wayne Parent.

Both of the state's U.S. senators — John Breaux (search) and Mary Landrieu (search) — are Democrats, as is Gov. Kathleen Blanco. The state went for Bill Clinton in the 1992 and 1996 presidential elections.

After a meeting Thursday in Washington with Kerry, Breaux said he advised the presumptive Democratic nominee to strike a moderate tone as he seeks support from Louisiana's uncommitted voters.

"Breaux is an incredibly effective Democrat down here and if he decides to put a lot of effort into the Kerry campaign, that would be something," Parent said.

Blacks, a key Democratic constituency, could account for more than 30 percent of the votes cast on Election Day in Louisiana and "Kerry could easily get 98 percent of those votes," said Elliott Stonecipher, a Louisiana political analyst and demographer.

"Bush wants the South solid and Kerry sees that he really has a shot in Louisiana," Stonecipher said.

In 2000, Bush won Louisiana — which has gone with the winning presidential candidate in the past seven elections — with a combination of conservative Democrats, independents and a majority of white women and Republicans.

To introduce him to Louisiana voters, one of Kerry's television ads uses two Vietnam veterans, his wife and his daughter to present his background as a Massachusetts prosecutor and U.S. senator. A second ad focuses on the Navy service in Vietnam that earned Kerry three Purple Hearts and Silver and Bronze stars.

Friday's trip is the seventh of Bush's presidency to Louisiana. His most recent visit was in February to speak to National Guard troops at Fort Polk (search).

The Bush campaign planned to run a new 30-second television ad starting Tuesday in 19 battleground states accusing Kerry of waffling on his support of the Patriot Act (search) after being "pressured by fellow liberals."

Kerry voted for the bill that expanded the government's surveillance and detention powers following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The ad is part of Bush's ongoing effort to cast Kerry as weak on national security issues.