PHILADELPHIA – President Bush (search) made Vietnam the 15th nation eligible for help under his global AIDS program on Wednesday as he blended public policy in the inner city with re-election chores at a country estate.
Bush's official purpose in making his 29th trip to Pennsylvania was to promote his administration's efforts to combat AIDS (search) at home and abroad. But the campaign was in the air as he and chief political adviser Karl Rove traveled here. Bush spent more than two hours mingling behind closed doors with wealthy donors who chipped in $1.4 million for the Republican National Committee.
Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (search), who hitched a ride to his home state with Bush on Air Force One, said Bush's outreach to an overwhelmingly black audience here could help tip the balance in Pennsylvania. Bush drew just 7 percent of Pennsylvania's black voters when he lost the state - the nation's fifth-largest electoral prize — by a mere 204,000 ballots in 2000.
Bush said his administration had decided to add Vietnam to the list of countries eligible for help under the five-year, $15 billion Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief he launched last year.
"We're putting a history of bitterness behind us with Vietnam," the president said. "We want the Vietnamese to hear: together we'll fight the disease. You've got a friend in America," he said.
Until now, most of the AIDS relief fund countries have been in Africa, with one each in the Caribbean and South America.
While India and other countries have larger populations with AIDS or HIV, the administration chose to add Vietnam to its global AIDS focus because top officials believed American money could make the largest impact there.
Vietnam is on the brink of an AIDS epidemic, with cases predicted to rise from 130,000 currently to 1 million by 2010, according to Bush administration officials.
Critics, including Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, said Bush's spending requests will fall short of his own goal to spend $15 billion.
"It is long past time for empty rhetoric on this issue. It is time for real resources and a real commitment that is based on science — not politics — to fight this epidemic," Kerry said of Bush's initiative.
Independent of his emergency AIDS program, Bush has pledged to give $1 billion over five years to the public-private Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. But some experts say that figure is inadequate and that as a result Vietnam and other countries will suffer from a shortfall in their efforts to combat.
"President Bush gives with one hand while taking away with the other," said Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance. Vietnam expects to receive $44.7 million from the global fund this year, but may not, he said.
Bush also said his administration was immediately shifting $20 million into a program meant to get HIV drugs to patients who have trouble obtaining them.
Bush laced his speech to the parishioners with Bible references, and his listeners responded with frequent cries of "Amen!"
The White House chose as Bush's audience members of the congregation of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church and activists with its sister charity, People For People Inc. Its pastor, the Rev. Herbert H. Lusk II, has been an ardent supporter of Bush since even before he became president.
Bush has been trying to feature the softer side of his policy agenda this week — the "compassion agenda," as he calls it. One protester outside Bush's speech held up a sign that called on the president to "Show Some Compassion: Resign!"