Enquirer News Update   -   Updated 6:40 p.m.

Huge crowd greets Bush

By Erica Solvig and Sheila McLaughlin
Enquirer staff writers

President Bush
Photos from today's rally
WEST CHESTER TWP.—A massive crowd at Voice of America Park gave President George W. Bush a boost today as he warmed up for Thursday night's first debate with Democrat John Kerry.

West Chester Police Chief John Bruce said the crowd was estimated at more than 50,000 people. Republican officials called it the largest crowd of any Bush re-election campaign rally.

"It's been a little tough to prepare for the debates because he keeps changing his positions," Bush said, continuing his campaign's charge that Kerry has changed positions on the war in Iraq.

The crowd broke into chants of "Flip-Flop! Flip-Flop!"

"I think he can spend 90 minutes debating himself," Bush said, drawing more laughs and cheers before adding: "You cannot lead if you don't know where you stand."

Besides poking at Kerry's record, Bush highlighted his own stands on the war against terrorism, on education reform, on the economy and on Social Security.

He spoke for about 40 minutes, then worked the crowd, shaking hands, before departing in a military helicopter at 5:36 p.m.

Hundreds were lined up before park gates opened at noon, and authorities kept the gates open an extra 45 minutes, until 3:45 p.m., for people delayed by heavy traffic around the site.

This evening, traffic was slow, but moving, as the site emptied out. U.S. Rep. John Boehner called it "the largest political event ever to be held in Ohio." The West Chester Republican introduced Bush as the first president to ever visit this Butler County township.

Cheers, applause, campaign signs and chants of "four more years," greeted Bush when he arrived at the park in a bus motorcade at about 4:30, slightly behind schedule.

"It lifts my spirits to see so many people," Bush said, expressing gratitude for the turnout. He called such a large crowd "a good sign" that he will carry Ohio and win a second term.

"I not only want your vote, I want your help," Bush told the crowd.

In the hours before Bush's arrival, National Football League Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz helped lead off a series of speeches by local leaders. The former Cincinnati Bengal, who has been active in charitable efforts to benefit Greater Cincinnati youths, called himself "a big Bush fan."

"He's proven that he's a great leader and we need that leadership for the next four years," Munoz told the crowd that included many local students. Lakota Schools and some other nearby schools dismissed classes early today. Lakota school bands performed, and the Lakota West High School choir sang the national anthem.

Country music singer Darryl Worley was the featured entertainment. He looked over the crowd and said: "I've seen an awful lot of things on the news, but I've never seen one bigger than this."

He concluded his set with his hit, "Have You Forgotten," a song about Sept. 11 and supporting the war afterward.

Among those on hand were Carolyn and Keith Maupin, the parents of Army Spc. Matt Maupin, a Clermont County native who was captured in Iraq on April 9. His whereabouts are unknown.

Also here to see the president was Staff Sgt. Paul Brondhaver, an Ohio National Guardsman and Anderson Township resident who was badly wounded in Iraq in July.

Handfuls of people held up Kerry-Edwards campaign signs outside the park. Sierra Club members planned to protest Bush's environmental policies. State and local police were out in force early. Semi-trucks and trailers and township vehicles were parked around the park perimeter as a blockade and officers were patrolling throughout the park.

John Kiesewetter and Kristen Muthig contributed to this report.

E-mail esolvig@enquirer.com and smclaughlin@enquirer.com