WASHINGTON – President Bush is traveling to Sarasota, Fla., on Tuesday to promote the economy at a campaign event for businessman Vern Buchanan, who is in a tight House race against Democrat Christine Jennings , a former bank executive.
The 13th District is one Republicans want to hang on to and high-profile GOP leaders, including Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Mel Martinez and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, all visited the area last week. An RT Strategies/Constituent Dynamics poll conducted Oct. 8-10 of 1,024 likely voters found Jennings up by 3 points, with 8 percent of voters undecided.
At Tuesday's campaign event, Bush will focus attention on the economy, one of the few bright spots Republicans are trying to promote ahead of the Nov. 7 midterm election. He will likely be expanding on comments made Monday, when Bush said the strength of the economy depends upon the success of small business owners.
After touring a minority-owned bank in Washington, D.C., Bush touted the nation's job creation of 6.6 million new jobs since August 2003. He said with today's current economy, people can succeed in achieving their dreams as long as government does not interfere.
"The role of government, it seems to me, is to make sure that the dreamers are rewarded for their hard work and their ingenuity and success. And the best way to do that is to reduce taxes on people," Bush said. "The more money a entrepreneur has in his or her pocket, the more likely it is he or she will be able to expand that business, which will create jobs."
Bush was speaking at Urban Trust Bank, which opened this year to provide service to urban and minority customers, especially underserved small businesses and home buyers. The bank was founded by former Black Entertainment Television owner Robert Johnson. The president also participated in a roundtable with three small- to medium-sized businesses that have taken advantage of community banking services.
The president said that as the economy has grown, so have real wages for American workers — 2.2 percent last year.
"That's important because not only does it mean the small businesses are doing well, it means that working families are doing as well," he said.
Bush added: "We've got to be careful about the number of lawsuits that threaten these young companies. The government can do well at helping to team up with private corporations to enhance capital flows."
By promoting the economy, the president is not trying to divert attention from the war in Iraq, insist White House advisers. But they do note that the situation in Iraq is overshadowing positive economic news at home.
"You take a look at consumer confidence levels. They're skyrocketing. People are feeling good about the economy. And if you take a look at the news coverage of it, it's been overwhelmingly negative at a time when you do have just an extraordinary situation," said White House press secretary Tony Snow.
"The fact is that you have trends that demonstrate that ... the economy has weathered incredible storms. We have built more wealth in the last three years than at any period in our nation's history, period. That's an extraordinary accomplishment in the face of two wars and Katrina, all of which have taken place since then," Snow said.
The president is likely to hit on positive numbers like the Dow Jones industrial average, which soared past 12,100 on Monday. The Conference Board's index of U.S. leading economic indicators rose last month, and the government reported last week that consumer prices fell in September by the largest amount in 10 months.
Republicans would like to benefit from news that unemployment is hovering at 4.6 percent, the best figures for the Clinton administration as well as the Bush administration. Gasoline prices have started dropping, and interest rates on credit cards and adjustable mortgages have leveled off since the Federal Reserve stopped raising rates.
The economy grew at a 2.6 percent pace from April through June, compared with a 5.6 percent pace over the first three months of the year, which was the strongest spurt in 2 1/2 years.
But private economists estimate the third quarter GDP will be lower — around 2.1 percent. The president's own economic guru Edward Lazear, chairman of the White House's Council of Economic Advisers, would not estimate what the July-September gross domestic product might be, but told The Associated Press Monday that the housing market slump is going to hurt third quarter economic numbers.
Lazear said he isn't overly troubled by those expectations because he views it more as a temporary "blip" rather than a trend.
Still, an Associated Press-Ipsos poll earlier this month found that 88 percent of likely voters surveyed say the economy is an important issue, with 42 percent of those questioned approving of Bush's handling of the economy.
That could be important to Republicans, as a FOX News-Opinion Dynamics poll found that among independent voters, 22 percent say their vote will be an expression of support for Bush while 41 percent said it will be an expression of opposition. Another 29 percent said Bush is not a factor in their vote. In that poll, 39 percent of all voters said the economy is extremely important to their vote.
"Disposable income is an excellent indicator of voter satisfaction and it's been going along at a decent clip all this year," said Barron's reporter Jim McTague, who told FOX News that by using the disposable income barometer, he predicts the GOP will maintain control of the House and Senate.
But Democrats are looking for a takeover in either or both the House and Senate, and they question the positive impact of U.S. economic gains.
Democrats need a 15-seat pickup to regain the House and a gain of six seats to reclaim the Senate. They say the middle class isn't enjoying the benefits of the upswing, with sluggish median earnings proving that paychecks have failed to keep pace with inflation. They also point to rising health care and energy costs.
"Republican economic policies have favored the privileged few at the expense of America's middle-class families," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a memorandum issued Monday.
"In many parts of the country, families are living paycheck to paycheck, struggling to make ends meet and going deeper into debt because of the high cost of health care, energy, food, housing or education. Corporate profits may be up, but the real incomes for middle-income families have declined every year since the president took office," she said.
FOX News contributor Wayne Rogers, head of financial group Wayne Rogers & Co., suggested Democrats may want to avoid talking about the economy. Rogers said if Democrats take control of Congress, their would-be chairmen in the Ways and Means Committee, the Legislature's taxing authority, will raise taxes.
"Every one of them wants to rectify what they view as bad tax cuts when in fact the tax cuts have produced a 4 percent growth in the economy for the last three years," Rogers said. "The tax cuts have produced a lot of good things for our economy, not just the stock market, but if they go against that, it's going to hurt the haves and the have-nots. That's what they don't understand."
Democrats say they are also interested in pressing the issue of the minimum wage, which hasn't gone up nationally from $5.15 per hour since 1997. Eighteen states have set their own minimum wages higher than the federal rate. This year, six states — Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Montana, Missouri and Ohio — have ballot initiatives this year to raise minimum wages in their states.
"The American people believe that the minimum wage needs to be raised. They understand that our national minimum wage is actually an embarrassment and that action needs to be taken to help the millions of Americans who work for the minimum wage and deserve a raise," said former Sen. John Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential candidate.
While the president is in Florida, he is also likely to be talking down Democratic criticism of the war in Iraq. Bush has characterized all the Democrats' proposals for Iraq as "cut and run," a phrase they detest. They have tried to turn the tables on Republicans by summing up the administration's policy as "stay the course."
Bush most recently used the phrase at the end of August and Snow said he won't use it again.
"What you have is not 'stay the course,' but, in fact, a study in constant motion by the administration and by the Iraqi government, and, frankly, also by the enemy, because there are constant shifts, and you constantly have to adjust to what the other side is doing," he said.
While Bush is in Florida, some of his senior advisers are giving interviews to talk radio show hosts, who were invited to do their shows Tuesday from the White House lawn.
Adviser Karl Rove told FOX News Talk's Brian and the Judge that Republicans will keep control of the House and Senate. He said polls indicate Democrats are no more energized to vote for the Democratic plan for Iraq than Republicans are put off by the handling of the Mark Foley congressional page scandal. He also said Republicans are poised to mount the biggest get-out-the-vote effort in history.
FOX News' Bret Baier and The Associated Press contributed to this report.