Trying to showcase the softer side of his political agenda, President Bush (search) said Friday there is an important place for the government in religion-oriented initiatives aimed at helping the needy.

Instead of ignoring religious charities and other organizations, "this country will encourage ... good works in every way we can," Bush said in a commencement speech at Concordia University (search) in Wisconsin, a state he lost by 6,000 votes four years ago.

"Government can play many important roles, but it cannot take someone's hand and be their friend. You have that power," Bush told the graduating class of Concordia, many of whom are going into the ministry.

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Under an executive order Bush signed earlier in his presidency, religious organizations can compete for billions of dollars in social service funding.

Bush's push to expand the role of churches and religious charities in government programs is a cornerstone of his "compassionate conservative" (search) agenda, but it has caused controversy in Congress from the start. Opponents worry that government would wind up paying for religion.

Earlier in the day at a fund-raiser in a museum of luxury American cars in Missouri, the president raised $2.2 million for the GOP's get-out-the-vote fund. Vice President Dick Cheney brought in $300,000 for the same fund in Orlando, Fla. Since February, Bush, Cheney and first lady Laura Bush have helped the RNC raise at least $17 million at such events around the nation. The president has amassed some $200 million for his own re-election.

Friday's trip comes on the heels of an effort by Bush to shore up his political base and ease concerns among conservatives about the scope and cost of his Iraq policy.

He told a gathering of conservatives Thursday night that they need not fear that he'll waver on Iraq, promising "America will finish what we have begun" despite rising international concerns over American conduct and an increase of violence directed against Americans.

Some prominent conservatives have voiced increasing skepticism about the administration's Iraq policy, his proposals to liberalize immigration and costly spending at a time of growing deficits.

However, he was warmly received at a dinner celebrating the 50th anniversary of the American Conservative Union (search), where the audience of about 500 people chanted "Four More Years" upon his arrival and gave him three standing ovations.

When Bush's religious initiative stalled in Congress, he began sidestepping lawmakers with executive orders and regulations to give religious organizations equal footing in competing for federal contracts. The president has called for legislation that would give religious groups access to federal funds as long as their services are available to anyone.

Bush's remarks at the 123-year-old Concordia University are the first of three commencement addresses the president will make. He speaks May 21 at Louisiana State University and June 2 at the Air Force Academy.

It was just a week ago that Bush was in Wisconsin, traveling rural roads in a bus tour of counties along the Mississippi River, where voters in rural areas and small and medium-sized towns will probably determine whether the state goes to Bush in November.

Underscoring the importance of both Missouri and Wisconsin to Bush's re-election campaign, Friday's trip is the 17th of his presidency to Missouri and the 11th to Wisconsin. Bush won Missouri four years ago, defeating Al Gore there by over 78,000 votes. The state has gone with the candidate who won the White House all but once since World War I.