By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
President Bush, saying he was taking nothing for granted, brought his re-election campaign Tuesday to the heart of his political strength in Ohio.
An eight-bus caravan took the president to the picturesque town of Lebanon for a speech in front of the historic Golden Lamb Inn and later to a rally at the Cincinnati Gardens in Bond Hill.
The White House described the bus trip as "100 percent political,'' freeing the president to go into full campaign mode, as opposed to the more statesman-like tone of an official visit.
This early in the campaign, Bush isn't trying to win over swing voters - the so-called soccer moms and NASCAR dads that make up targeted, independent voting blocks.
Instead, Bush appealed to the Republican faithful who will put up yard signs, register voters and build an organization in Ohio.
"You have to work hard to get out the vote, and that's why they call it grass roots," Bush told a crowd of 10,000 at the Gardens. "I'm here to fertilize the grass roots."
That was music to the ears of Greg Hartmann, the Hamilton County clerk of courts who is county chairman of the Bush campaign.
"The president worked on his father's campaign. He knows what it takes to win an election, how many thousands of people it takes," he said. "We have 2,000 people working for the president here - in May. And we're not done. We have to grow this every month."
By the time he returned to Washington Tuesday night, Bush had completed a two-day bus trip through Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. The tour countered a similar caravan by Democratic opponent Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts through the battleground states last week. The latest Ohio Poll has Bush and Kerry in a virtual tie.
In Michigan and Ohio, Bush peppered his speeches with one-line quips about Kerry, including jabs at the cars he drives, his so-called flip-flops on issues and his meetings with foreign leaders.
In his half-hour speech to a crowd of about 2,500 people in Lebanon, Bush criticized Kerry on issues of national security, taxes and education.
"He's been in Washington an awful long time. So long, he's taken about both sides of just about every issue,'' Bush said. "That's called Washington-itis."
To the Kerry campaign, the president's stance isn't surprising, given the estimated $60 million in negative advertising Bush has aired in Ohio and 18 other states.
"We all like a good laugh, and he can joke all he wants," Kerry spokesman Mark Kornblau said. "But there is nothing funny about the 200,000 jobs lost in Ohio. We hope he keeps laughing all the way back to Texas."
Lebanon was the smallest town on the Bush bus tour, and the campaign took care to preserve its 19th-century charm as a backdrop.
Behind Bush, the historic Golden Lamb Inn was decked in red-white-and-blue bunting, although two Secret Service snipers stood with binoculars on its roof. Splashes of sunshine belied temperatures that felt like early fall, but Bush went without the suit coat or bomber's jacket he usually wears outdoors.
Warren County was a natural destination for Bush. The second-fastest-growing of Ohio's 88 counties, it is staunchly Republican. Bush took 70 percent of the county vote in the 2000 election against Democrat Al Gore. Bush carried the state by 4 percentage points.
Bush was the 12th president to visit the 189-year-old Golden Lamb, which is owned by the family of U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, a Republican from Terrace Park and a close ally of Bush.
"I'm proud to be the first sitting president to visit here. Actually, I'm a standing president right now,'' he said, leaning forward on the podium with a folksy guffaw. "Rob told me 11 other presidents visited the Golden Lamb. None of them came on a bus like this."
Priscilla Bendel of Lebanon has seen her share of presidents - including Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy and Bush's father - but this was the first time a sitting president had visited her hometown.
"This couldn't happen to a better community," said the 64-year-old, who wore an American flag-sequined shirt and a patriotic bead necklace.
But it's not a Republican-only county.
In nearby Harmon Park, several groups organized a Democratic Unity Picnic where protesters gathered for most of the afternoon. Protesters also congregated near Broadway.
In his speech, Bush pushed for lawsuit reform, continued accountability for schools and increased funding for community colleges to prepare workers for the jobs that exist.
He poked fun at Kerry's statement last year that foreign leaders had told him they wanted a change in the White House. Just because Kerry met a guy in a suit with an accent in New York doesn't make him a foreign leader, Bush said.
"I'm here to ask for the endorsement not of foreign leaders, but of the American people," he said.
Bush said he's interested in building alliances to meet the terrorist threats but said it's most important that the president means what he says when he talks to the world.
"The best way to protect America is to stay on the offensive and bring these killers to justice. When the president sees a threat, he can't just hope it goes away."
Dick Kaufman and his 13-year-old daughter, Kayla, of Lebanon left impressed with what the president had to say on Iraq, as well as the economy, job growth and education.
"I came here wanting to hear an overall clear picture of his politics, and I got it," Dick Kaufman said after the nearly 30-minute speech. "This is a president with a vision for where he wants to go, not just a bunch of political promises."
After some "down time" in Blue Ash, the motorcade drove to Cincinnati Gardens. Bush took the podium 15 minutes behind his expected 6:30 p.m. arrival time.
On one side of the arena was draped a scoreboard-sized American flag; on the other was a logo with the letter "W" stamped on a map of Ohio. Bush arrived to a concert-like music and light show, thunderous applause and chants of "U.S.A., U.S.A.!"
He acknowledged Kerry's "Jobs First" tour through northern Ohio last week and emphasized the importance of the state to both campaigns.
"I know there are still people in this important state who hurt," he said. "That's not a reason to fall into pessimistic policies. We've got to be optimistic. And there's reason to be optimistic. The entrepreneurial spirit is strong. Small businesses are vibrant. We're going through a time of transition, but things are getting better."
He noted that unemployment in Ohio has dropped from 6.3 percent to 5.7 percent in the past year.
Back to foreign policy, he said, "It is the president's job to confront problems, not to pass them on to future presidents and future generations,'' he said. "The president needs to step up and make hard decisions and keep his commitments, and that is how I will continue to lead this great nation.''
Shortly before ending his 45-minute speech, Bush summed up his candidacy: "I am running for four more years because we have a war to win, and the world is counting on us to lead the cause of freedom and peace.''
Although thousands of free tickets were distributed by Republican Party officials, hundreds of Bush supporters with tickets were turned away.
Among them were Reginald Morris of Kenwood and his four children. Son Jonathan, 14, was disappointed. "I put on my really good clothes. We were ready, and we were psyched,'' he said. A consolation: Jonathan had his picture taken with a Secret Service agent.
A group of 23 College Republicans from Mount Vernon Nazarene University arrived early at the Gardens to rally for the president.
Senior Jordan Snow, 22, said the group attended to offset any Kerry supporters. "We're here just to be politically aware, politically involved and support Bush,'' he said.
Marine Lance Cpl. Neil Lavaron, 24, of Mason, said he was in Kuwait for four months in 2003. He came to "support the man that took care of us while we were there, to show my loyalty."
Present to show opposition to Bush was a contingent from the Hamilton County Democratic Party. Members held a large sign that read: "Mission Not Accomplished.'' The reference was to the May 1, 2003, Bush declaration that the major fighting in Iraq was over.
"We think it pretty much sums up the whole administration,'' said Adam Michael Rosenberg, executive director of the party. "While Hamilton County has a reputation for being conservative, there's an unbelievable amount of Democrats here, all of whom are angry and upset.''
Bush won Hamilton County in 2000 with 54 percent of the vote. The strength of his campaign in Ohio will depend heavily on turning out the Republican vote in Hamilton County and neighboring counties.
Reporters Erica Solvig and Maggie Downs contributed. E-mail email@example.com
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