President Bush, campaigning aggressively ahead of the high-stakes Nov. 7 elections, said Saturday Democrats should not be trusted to control Congress because they have no idea how to win in Iraq.
"I want you to think about the Democrat plan for success. There isn't one," Bush told thousands of energized Republicans packed into a high school gymnasium. "They are in agreement on one thing — they will leave before the job is done, and we will not let them."
The rally was aimed at boosting GOP Rep. Mike Sodrel, facing former Democratic Rep. Baron Hill for the third time in a rural southern Indiana district so evenly divided between the parties that each man has won once.
Before leaving Washington, the president spoke for 50 minutes with Iraq's prime minister, seeking to ease recent tensions over a U.S. plan for benchmarks for reducing the violence.
Until the Indiana campaign stop, all of Bush's approximately 90 political events in the 2005-2006 election season were fundraisers with donors willing to pay a high price to see him.
The rally was the president's first free appearance and came in the final stretch of an election that will determine whether Republicans retain their majorities in the House and Senate.
The president has five more rallies scheduled so far through Thursday, in Texas, Montana and Nevada, and two in Georgia.
Later Saturday in South Carolina, Bush was greeting troops at the Charleston Air Force Base and raising money for the Republican National Committee at a resort and spa on picturesque Kiawah Island. That fundraiser and one with Vice President Dick Cheney on Friday night, also on Kiawah, were expected to bring in $1 million total.
At the Indiana rally, a large group of protesters gathered across the road. But inside the steamy gym, the president basked in the reception. The screaming, foot-stomping audience frequently drowned out his words with applause, chants and cheers.
Bush — his sleeves rolled up, a wide grin on his face — gave out hugs and handshakes, cuddled babies passed up to him over the crowd and waved at his supporters. The wear of the campaign season showed in his voice, which sounded as if it might soon give out.
To support his claim that Democrats are offering no clear alternative to his leadership on Iraq, the president noted some Democrats have urged an immediate pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq, while others have advocated a specific date by which all American soldiers will come home or cutting off money for the war.
"Five years after September the 11th, too many Democrats still do not get it," Bush said. "The best way to protect the homeland is to find the enemy and defeat them overseas."
A new Associated Press-AOL News poll that found likely voters — angry at Bush and citing Iraq and the economy as their top issues — overwhelmingly prefer Democrats over Republicans. The poll found voters think Democrats would do a better job on Iraq by a 15-point margin.
Bush refuses to say what the consequences would be for the Iraqi government if it does not meet benchmarks being set in consultation with the U.S.
"Since 2003, President Bush has laid out nine different plans for victory in Iraq, none of them serious and none of them workable. And most seriously, this incompetence has hindered our ability to fight international terror," said the Democratic candidate for Senate in Virginia, Jim Webb. A decorated Vietnam combat veteran whose son is on active duty in Iraq, Webb was selected to speak for his party in delivering the weekly radio response to Bush.
In recent days, a feud between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government has put the White House on the defensive and undermined the president's attempt to put a new face on his much-criticized Iraq strategy. After the videoconfernce, Bush and al-Maliki issued a joint statement saying they were "committed to the partnership."
The president sought to rally GOP support by criticizing Democrats' opposition to his administration's proposal for detaining, interrogating and trying suspected terrorists
"In all these vital measures for fighting the war on terror, the Democrats in Washington follow a simple philosophy: Just say no," he said.
"So when the Democrats ask for your vote on November the 7th, what are you going to say?" Bush yelled. "Just say no!" the audience yelled back.
Bush stuck to his theme that Democrats would raise taxes if they gain control of Congress. "They want to get in your pocketbook," he said. "We're not going to let them."
The latest economic reports showed growth in the previous quarter at an annual rate of just 1.6 percent. Democrats argue Bush's tax cuts are not helping at a time when wage growth is lagging, benefits are falling and costs for health care, education and energy are high.