President Bush, winding his way by bus through job-strapped Michigan and Ohio, acknowledged Monday that the region is still in the throes of an ailing economy while warning that Democratic challenger John Kerry (search) is not the steady leader America needs.

Looking to show equal parts empathy and determination, Bush told Republican-friendly audiences that "when the president speaks, he better mean what he says," and also said that in time of war, "what the country needs is a leader who speaks clearly."

The reference was to Kerry, whom the Bush campaign has tried to portray as a candidate who lacks conviction and merely says what is politically expedient. As Bush campaigned, Kerry unveiled new ads that tout his "lifetime of service and strength."

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Bush pointed out that the economy is showing signs of growth nationwide, "but lags in Michigan (search), I understand that." The president added: "I understand that Michigan still suffers."

In 1992, the perception that he lacked understanding with hard-pressed working Americans contributed to the defeat of Bush's father. The son is determined to avoid that image in his re-election bid.

Along with the flash of economic empathy, Bush acknowledged his doubters on the war in Iraq.

"They're wondering whether or not politics will cause the politicians to change their minds in the midst of this transfer of sovereignty," he said at his first stop in Niles, Mich. "I'm not changing my mind. We're doing the right thing. We'll always honor those who sacrifice for our freedom. We will not allow them to die in vain. Iraq will be free, and Iraq will be more secure."

Kerry has criticized Bush's economic policies while raising questions about the administration's dealings with U.S. allies on Iraq (search). With polls showing the race a dead heat, Bush ramped up his re-election bid with a staple of modern-day campaigns: a bus trip.

His convoy of eight buses — red, white and mostly blue — began in northern Indiana, where he campaigned for Republican Mitch Daniels, a former aide now running for governor, and sped across the southern border of Michigan to suburban Detroit. Voters along the way have a history of swinging between Democratic and Republican candidates.

Nothing was left to chance.

Tickets to his speeches were doled out by partisans. Local reporters, not members of the White House press corps, were welcomed aboard Bush's bus for brief interviews. And the route was well-publicized, drawing large crowds of people hoping to catch a glimpse of the president. They lined back-roads as well as highways — from one southern corner of Michigan to the other.

"Thank you for protecting us!" read a sign outside Vandalia, Mich., where the two-lane road was patrolled by sheriff's deputies on horseback.

Several dozen anti-Bush demonstrators protested just outside an auditorium in Kalamazoo, with signs that read: "Wage Peace," "Worst President Ever" and "Thou shall not lie."

The star-spangled buses were emblazoned with the words "Yes, America Can" — a slogan meant to project optimism to a region that has lost tens of thousands of jobs under Bush.

"The president places a premium on politics when he should be focusing on creating jobs," said Kerry spokesman Phil Singer. "He exploits the terrorist attacks instead of providing firefighters and police officers with the resources they need to actually protect us from terrorism .... The bottom line is that 'Yes American can,' but only if John Kerry is president."

Michigan has lost 223,900 jobs since Bush took office in January 2001, and the unemployment rate has climbed from 4.6 percent to 6.9 percent. In Ohio, where he travels on Tuesday, 222,600 jobs have been lost and the unemployment rate has risen from 3.9 percent to 5.7 percent.

Bush focused on the positive, saying 5,900 jobs were created in Michigan last month. He pointed to a spate of economic statistics that suggest the economy is recovering. Note cards in hand, Bush called on prescreened audience members who gave upbeat assessments of the economy.

A small businessman, identified as Mike Welch, said he will soon hire two or three people. "That might not sound like a lot to some, you know, two people, three people," Bush said. "But there's a lot of Mikes in America" hiring people.

The slowly recovering economy is vexing both candidates. While Bush sought to show empathy with ordinary Americans, Kerry sought in a Wall Street Journal interview to cast himself as a business-friendly Democrat.

Bush hopes to convince voters that Kerry doesn't have the resolve to handle terrorism and the economy. In Kalamazoo County, which is up for grabs in November, Bush focused on Kerry's comment that he doesn't own a sport utility vehicle, but his family does.

Bush said his rival is "developing the Washington language: Washington-itis."

"He's one guy getting a lot of mileage out of one SUV," Bush said as the audience laughed.

Later in Sterling Heights, Mich., a crowd of several thousand booed as Bush ticked off Kerry's record on taxes.

"In order for him to keep his promises, he's going to have to raise taxes on hardworking Americans and we're not going to give him the chance to do so," Bush said at the after-dark rally at an outdoor amphitheater in suburban Detroit.