WASHINGTON – It was the defining moment of his presidency, and for his first stop in the convention city, President Bush (search) chose a New York audience that will evoke memories of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Bush was to meet Wednesday night with firefighters in Elmhurst, N.Y., about 10 miles from where terrorists crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center (search ) nearly three years ago. Campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel says conventioneers will be able to watch as Bush talks with the firefighters.
The president planned to rehearse his speech Wednesday at the White House before he and first lady Laura Bush leave for Columbus, Ohio, the final stop of the president's nine-state journey to the Republican National Convention. Ohio is a swing state dubbed Ground Zero of this year's election.
The event with firefighters is aimed at emphasizing the war on terrorism, a central theme of Bush's race for re-election. And it is designed to recall the day Bush visited Ground Zero three years ago — without the president actually visiting the attack site and inviting criticism that he was exploiting the tragedy.
"Sept. 11 is an issue of political symbolism and a question about who owns that symbolism," says Stanley Renshon, a psychologist and political scientist at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. "Bush has as much claim to it as anyone else since he was president when we were hit. But having said that, the Republicans are going to have to be very careful not to politicize it."
Bush is scheduled back in his hotel suite in time to watch Vice President Dick Cheney (search ) address the GOP convention.
The president's trek to New York has taken him to the hotly contested states of New Mexico, Florida, Ohio, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Michigan, Tennessee, Iowa, Pennsylvania — and back again to Ohio.
Bush won Ohio in 2000, as has every other Republican who's ever been elected president. Yet the state is so competitive that Wednesday's trip is Bush's 23rd as president. This time, he'll be in Franklin County, one of the top swing counties of the state, says Jason Mauk, a spokesman for the Republican Party in Ohio.
Bush won the 62nd ward in Franklin County, just northeast of Columbus, by just 12 votes, Mauk said. And it was in this ward that Kerry appeared on the front porch of a local resident's home.
"Ward 62 is very representative of Franklin County as a whole," Mauk said. "It's one of those neighborhoods where you can literally drive down the street and see a Kerry yard sign right next to a lawn with a Bush sign."
Democrat John Kerry (search ), who has visited Ohio 13 times this year, thinks the state's 20 electoral votes are so key to a victory that he is speaking at a midnight rally in Springfield, Ohio, just hours after Bush's Thursday night acceptance speech in New York.
Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000 by 4 percentage points, but he is vulnerable because Ohio has lost more than 200,000 jobs since he took office. The economy will be the topic of Bush's remarks at a hockey arena in Columbus, where he will be introduced by golf legend Jack Nicklaus.
"There's more work to do to make sure this economy continues to grow," Bush said at a campaign stop Tuesday at a farm show in Alleman, Iowa, where he continued his portrayal of Kerry as a tax-and-spend politician. "One thing we got to do (is) be smart about how we spend your money in Washington, D.C. And the other thing is to keep your taxes low. The worst thing that could happen to our economy right now is to let them run up your taxes on you."
In Beckley, W.Va., on Tuesday, Kerry's running mate John Edwards, appearing with AFL-CIO (search ) secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka, denounced Bush's economic policies, which he says have left the middle class in the lurch.
"American families are working harder than ever before, and yet they are being squeezed like never before because of George Bush's miscalculations," Edwards said. "George Bush once said that results matter when choosing a president. He couldn't be more right. The past 3 1/2 years may have yielded results for his corporate friends, but everyday Americans have seen nothing but empty promises, fewer jobs and higher costs."