Bush to Tout Economy During Nevada Swing

President Bush is expected to promote a booming economy and national security during a campaign visit Friday to Nevada, where controversy lingers over a high-level nuclear waste dump the president has supported and Democratic rival John Kerry (search) has opposed.

Bush, in his second visit to Nevada as president, plans to deliver an afternoon speech in Reno after appearances in the state of Washington. His campaign chairman, Marc Racicot (search), said he didn't know whether Bush's support for the nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain will tighten a race he already expects to be close.

In 2002 the Bush administration and Congress approved a plan to store at Yucca Mountain 77,000 tons of radioactive waste held in 39 states. Nevada is challenging the project in the courts, and Sen. Harry Reid (search), D-Nev., has opposed funding for the project.

Racicot said Nevada residents know that the president has been "entirely honest" about the Yucca Mountain plan. During the 2000 campaign, Bush pledged to base a decision on science instead of politics, which Racicot said the president has done. The Bush-Cheney campaign hopes Nevada voters will understand "their obligations and duties" in helping resolve a strategic problem on disposal of nuclear waste from across the nation, Racicot said.

Sean Smith, Kerry's Nevada communications director, questioned Bush's position on the controversial plan to send nuclear waste to the state.

"I'm amazed that guy is showing his face in this state," Smith said. "The first words out of his mouth when he's here should be an apology for lying to us about Yucca Mountain."

Kerry has opposed the project at Yucca Mountain, located 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, for 16 years, Smith said. However, Racicot accused Kerry of saying "very opportunistically" there won't be a nuclear waste dump in Nevada but not proposing an alternative.

The campaigns also disagreed on the quality of the economic recovery. Racicot said the economy is "firing on all cylinders," with major job growth and other improvements, as a result of Bush's policies. But Smith said many of the new jobs pay poorly.

"The middle class really has been facing a squeeze under this administration. Bush has a lot of explaining to do," Smith said.

Nevada's registered voters are almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. In 2000, Bush won the state's four electoral votes by 4 percentage points, 50-46, over Al Gore. Nevada will have five electoral votes this year.

The state has a history of close elections, including Reid's 428-vote victory in 1998.

"That gives us comfort," Racicot said.

Racicot said demographic changes in Nevada — notably an influx of newcomers to the Las Vegas area — means Bush strategists should question their assumptions about the state. The 1st congressional district, mainly Las Vegas, supported Gore by 16 percentage points. Gore won the 3rd district, mainly an area surrounding Las Vegas, by just one-half of 1 percentage point while Bush carried the 2nd district, which encompasses the rest of the state, by 20 percentage points.

"We know we have to be competitive in the north and the south," Racicot said.

Kerry has been to Nevada twice since becoming a candidate, first in February and again in mid-May, both times to Las Vegas. The Massachusetts senator hopes to make other visits in coming months, including one to Reno, Smith said.

Bush's visit to Reno "only underscores how afraid the Republicans are of losing this state to John Kerry," Smith said. "And they should be scared."