PHOENIX – Following Tuesday's State of the Union (search) address, President Bush has been criss-crossing election battleground states to tout initiatives he discussed in the speech.
Bush spent Wednesday night in Arizona in his first visit to a border state since unveiling his proposal to give temporary visas to illegal aliens who have jobs in this country.
"They're coming to make a living, and they're filling jobs that, frankly, others won't do. It seems like to me that we ought to have a policy that's open and honest about this phenomenon. It's a policy that, in my judgment, should say, where there's a willing worker and a willing employer, those two ought to be matched up together in a legal way," Bush said at Mesa Community College (search) in Phoenix.
Bush's plan has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike, who say it will punish American workers and give illegal immigrants a way to bring their families to this country. The president says it's a way to put immigrant smugglers out of business and to legalize people who are going to come to the U.S. anyway.
Also stopping at a community college in Ohio, Bush acknowledged "still troubled times" as he discussed on Wednesday his plan for retraining laid-off workers in a state expected to be hard fought in the 2004 presidential election.
Bush set out to discuss his proposal -- first mentioned in the State of the Union Tuesday night --for getting workers ready for new careers.
Bush's "Jobs for the 21st Century" plan would spur employment by spending $500 million on a slew of job-training and education programs, Bush said. Of that sum, $250 million would be given as grants to community colleges that partner with employers looking for higher-skilled workers; an extra $33 million would be added to the approximately $12 billion Pell Grant (search) program for low-income students who complete a rigorous high school curriculum to get an extra $1,000 per year.
The plan also foresees devoting $100 million to teach middle and high school students to read, $120 million in grants to increase math achievement and a $28 million increase in funding for Advanced Placement classes.
"We better have a system, which is able to be flexible enough to help people who want to work find a job -- to match willing worker with willing employer," Bush said at Owens Community College (search) near Toledo. "The key is to train people for the work that actually exists."
But Democrats seeking to expel Bush in November derided the president's approach as a meager step in an economy that they say has shed 2.3 million jobs during the current term.
"After four years in office, this president still doesn't understand what's happening in living rooms across this country," said John Kerry, campaigning in New Hampshire. The Massachusetts senator said Bush has failed to deliver on a promise to create 250,000 jobs last month. Last month, businesses added just 1,000 new jobs nationwide.
Bush said in December that 300,000 jobs were created in the prior three months. Many in the business sector applauded Bush's initiatives to boost employment and workforce productivity.
"Our view is, in his speech last night, he really hit the nail on the head in talking about the importance of productivity gains … and also talking about what we have to do as a nation to prepare ourselves for the next-generation workforce and to work to maintain this broad competitiveness," Robert Holleyman, president of the Business Software Alliance, told Foxnews.com.
"President Bush concisely hit upon the issues that matter to small businesses," said Small Business Survival Committee Chairwoman Karen Kerrigan.
Kerrigan hailed Bush's proposals to make permanent tax relief provisions that give small firms incentives to invest in their businesses and greater access to more of their capital to hire and provide for the needs of their workforce.
"His focus on their needs is critically important to economic growth -- after all, small firms are responsible for the bulk of job creation and innovation in the U.S.," she said.
Still, Bush is likely to have trouble selling his plan in an election year in which the pace of job growth could become his Achilles heel.
As he began his post-State of the Union road trip -- a ritual presidents traditionally follow in order to get beyond what Bush calls the "filter" of the Washington news media -- the president was greeted by local protesters who braved single-digit temperatures to register their dissatisfaction with his leadership on the economy.
Demonstrators in Toledo brought along an oversized, inflatable rat bearing the sign, "Where are the jobs?"
Bush responded that jobs are coming to workers who move away from the manufacturing sector to develop other job skills.
"These are some of the ways to make sure the manufacturing sector in this state remains strong, but the truth of the matter is there is job growth in other sectors," Bush said.
Neither Bush nor his aides has yet provided an explanation of how education initiatives and retraining programs will produce the large number of new jobs needed to ease the malaise that still exists in many communities.
But Holleyman welcomed any efforts to help boost the workforce and train next-generation workers.
"The support for these types of new investments will be critical in maintaining the long-term competition of America," Holleyman said.
Basic skills like reading, math and science need to be improved, Holleyman said, in both younger and older students. Investing in industry-university partnerships and ensuring the government is well aware of the private sector's employee needs is necessary to make sure people have the necessary skills in tomorrow's workforce, he said.
Bush will also travel Thursday to Roswell, N.M., where he will talk about the war against terrorism to an audience of police, firefighters and emergency medical technicians, those likely to respond first to a terrorist attack. For the most part it is a friendly audience, though some say they need more federal help than the Bush administration is providing.
Bush aides said Tuesday's night's speech wasn't political, but his follow-up travel does suggest the president has launched his re-election campaign.
No Republican has ever won the White House without the Buckeye State, and Bush's trip marked his 14th visit to the state. In the last election, he carried Ohio by 3.5 percentage points.
Phoenix is the largest city in a state that handed its 10 electoral votes to Bush by a very narrow margin in 2000. New Mexico went to Democrat Al Gore in 2000 by 366 votes.
Back in Washington, the White House tried to spread Bush's message by allowing talk radio hosts to broadcast from the front lawn, complete with all-day access to various top-level Bush officials.
Fox News' Wendell Goler, Liza Porteus and Peter Brownfeld and The Associated Press contributed to this report.