President Bush (search) voiced sympathy on Monday for this industrial state's economic distress but told a receptive northern Michigan audience that conditions are improving.

"We've come through a lot together," Bush told an outdoor rally at the Grand Traverse County Civic Center.

Although Michigan (search), with its 17 electoral votes, is being actively courted by both parties, Traverse City is off the presidential candidates' beaten path.

Bush noted he was the first sitting president to come here since Gerald Ford (search) rode in the National Cherry Festival Parade here in 1975 — and Ford was from Michigan.

"It's good to be here in cherry country. Today, it looks like Bush-Cheney country too," Bush said.

He lost Michigan to Al Gore in 2000 by five percentage points. Recent state polls show Democratic challenger John Kerry (search) with a slight lead.

However, northern Michigan is heavily Republican. The crowd chanted, "Four more years."

Bush said he would "make sure good jobs stay in America" and would try to open more foreign markets for Michigan farmers. "We want them feeding hungry mouths all over the world," Bush said.

He again mocked what he said was Kerry's shifting position on the war in Iraq. Bush said he was heartened when Kerry said last week that he would have still voted to give Bush war authority had he known in the fall of 2002 what he knows now — that there were no weapons of mass destruction.

Still, Bush said to laughter, "he has 78 days to change his mind."

Kerry has said that he would have still voted to give the president war authority — but that he himself would have used the authority more wisely.

Bush credited recent signs of economic recovery to "two well-timed tax cuts" and to people's entrepreneurial spirit.

It was Bush's fifth visit to Michigan in six weeks, his 27th since becoming president.

Not far from the rally site, several hundred protesters yelled and held anti-Bush and anti-war signs. One said, "1,000 by election day," referring to the rising U.S. death toll in Iraq. Another said: "Support our troops — vote Bush out."

At the rally, people waved signs that said "Michigan is Bush Country" and "Bush-Cheney 04," while a huge American flag held aloft from a large yellow crane fluttered in the breeze.

Kathy Kroupa, 54, whose family has a cherry orchard on Old Mission Peninsula, said she believed most Michigan voters support Bush's policies. "There's a silent majority and I hope it'll come out," she said.