WASHINGTON – It was Nebraska where the Treasury Department first issued its Lewis and Clark commemorative nickel, but Secretary John Snow (search) opted to attend similar festivities in neighboring Iowa.
Maybe it's just a coincidence, but Iowa is a swing state in the presidential election. Nebraska is not.
Bush Cabinet secretaries have been traveling regularly to politically important states, often at government expense.
It happens every election season, whichever party is in power. This summer, Cabinet secretaries have been making enthusiastic use of their offices to tout Republicans running in close races and to push President Bush's message.
In Texas, both candidates in a tight congressional race — both current House members — invited the chief of the Veterans Affairs Department (search) to visit a local hospital. But only the Republican was invited to join Secretary Anthony Principi for the tour Tuesday.
In Oregon, fiercely contested in the presidential race, voters have seen a steady stream of Cabinet members: Labor Secretary Elaine Chao (search), Interior Secretary Gale Norton (search), Commerce Secretary Don Evans (search), Education Secretary Rod Paige (search) and Snow, who's been there twice this year. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman (search) was there just last week to help transfer the Forest Service's Bend Pine Nursery to local officials in Bend.
And in Alaska, GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski (search), fighting to keep her seat, has had a succession of secretaries at her side. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, Chao and Snow have all made the 4,300-mile trip at government expense.
Just last week, Chao went to Ohio, another closely fought state, to promote the Bush administration's controversial new rules on overtime. Her trip was paid with government money, but Chao was unapologetic about the politics.
"My presence here is to indicate, obviously, the president's concern and engagement in Ohio," Chao said.
Of the seven Chao trips highlighted on the Labor Department Web site, five were to presidential battleground states and a sixth was to South Dakota, where a tight Senate race is under way.
Under government rules, a secretary's travel costs are divided according to how much of a trip consisted of official events and how much was political. The government covers the official share and campaigns or political parties are supposed to pay for the political portion.
It's hard to tell what's official and what isn't. Often events that seem political have an official veneer, qualifying them for the government expense account.
Snow has hopped from one swing state to another. This year, he has been to 15 of the 18 states that are most competitive in the White House race, including Florida and Ohio, which he visited five times apiece. He's traveled to only a few states that are not on the competitive list.
Once he's in town, part of Snow's job is to explain how "the president's policies are strengthening the economy, creating jobs," said chief spokesman Rob Nichols.
And that's just what Snow does.
"There is a reason why the president's tax cuts focused on helping your businesses," Snow told business leaders in Little Rock, Ark., "because we understand that it's businesses like yours that create jobs, and that is the president's top economic priority."
Some of the visits seem non-political, like Snow's trip to the Iowa State Fair, where he handed out Lewis and Clark nickels to little kids. But politics was not far behind.
Standing on the fair's stage, normally used for talent shows, Snow spent most of his time touting the Bush administration's tax cuts and talking about other policy issues.
Nichols said Snow went to Iowa rather than Nebraska for the nickel launch because he was invited by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican.
Like all Cabinet secretaries, Nichols said, Snow clears and coordinates his travel with the White House.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld prefers to reach out over the radio. Since the beginning of July, he has done a series of radio interviews. Some were with nationally syndicated shows; all but one of the rest were with stations in swing states.
Rumsfeld did travel to Arizona Thursday, where he brushed aside a question about calls for his resignation after a report blamed him and other senior defense leaders for lax oversight of military-run prisons in Iraq. "The president asked me not to get involved in politics, so I don't," he said.
Even Colin Powell, who has said that as secretary of state he will keep a traditional distance from politics, has not steered clear altogether. He is skipping the Republican National Convention next week, but he regularly defends administration policies that are very much at issue in the campaign, including the war in Iraq.
And Powell made an appearance this month — in Ohio.