BAKERSFIELD, Calif., March 4 -- President Bush rhapsodized Thursday about the possibility that a stock-car firm in this hot, dry community will add two jobs this year, as he refined his campaign message of economic optimism.
Bush, seated on a highchair along with five small-business workers and owners, was speaking at a "conversation on the economy," a talk-show-type event the White House stages regularly in front of television-friendly signs that say, "Strengthening the Economy."
As his motorcade passes North Beardsley School in Bakersfield, Calif., where he is campaigning, President Bush makes an unplanned stop to greet students waiting by the road.
(Charles Dharapak -- AP)
Prompted by the president, chassis-maker Les DenHerder said the tax cuts Bush backed might allow him to hire two or three more people.
"When he says he's going to hire two more, that's really good news," Bush said. "A lot of people are feeling confident and optimistic about our future so they can say, 'I'm going to hire two more.' They can sit here and tell the president in front of all the cameras, 'I'm going to hire two more people.' That's confidence!"
Bush's future may depend on it at least as much as DenHerder's does. Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), who cemented the Democratic nomination this week, wants to make Bush's economic leadership a central issue in the campaign and has promised to restore 3 million jobs in the first 500 days of his administration.
Bush's focus on two jobs suggests how critical the issue is to his reelection. At the end of January, the economy had lost a net 2.2 million jobs over the course of Bush's term. Bakersfield is in Kern County, where the unemployment rate in January was 13.6 percent.
Television market by television market and state by state, the president is trying to make the case that his tax cuts were good for the economy even though they have failed to produce the jobs he forecast. Employment figures remain disappointing, and Democrats are accusing him of having the worst record on jobs since President Herbert Hoover.
On Friday, the Labor Department will report employment growth for February, and Wall Street traders are awaiting the figure as a key indicator about the economy. The consensus forecast is that about 125,000 jobs were added, but the monthly number has defied market expectations before. And the University of Michigan reported last week that consumer confidence fell sharply in February.
Reframing the jobs issue in the face of mixed indicators is one of the most daunting challenges for Bush's campaign. That is how the president of the United States came to be chatting animatedly and at length about two or three jobs, paying around $19 an hour, that may be added by DenHerder's Victory Circle Inc., which makes fiberglass stock cars.
Bush has held 11 "conversation" events this year, the past six on the economy. DenHerder, 47, said he plans to spend $50,000 on a welding machine and pipe-bending equipment, and expects to save about $7,000 because of the new tax laws.
"That's how the economy works," Bush said. "He makes a decision. It affects a lot of people, the decision you make. So when you hear 'tax relief,' I hope people connect tax relief with decision-making -- and decision-making to jobs. That's what we're talking about. That's why the tax relief was important for job creation."
After the 42-minute economic event, Bush headed north to Silicon Valley to collect $700,000 at a $2,000-a-plate fundraiser for his campaign. He has raised $12.5 million in California, which in 2000 was the second-largest contributor to his treasury, after his home state of Texas.
Bush lost California by 11 percentage points. GOP officials contend that the overwhelming election of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) in October gives them more hope this time, although Bush aides concede it is a long shot. "By electing Governor Schwarzenegger, the voters of California have shown that no party can take California for granted," Bush said in Santa Clara. "The vice president and I are going to be spending some quality time here this coming year."
Repeating comments he made in Los Angeles on Wednesday night, Bush attacked Kerry by name, asserting that he would raise taxes and would produce "an America that is uncertain in the face of danger," and saying the senator "has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue."
After two days in the state, Bush flew to his ranch in Crawford, Tex., where immigration will be part of the agenda for talks with his weekend visitor, Mexican President Vicente Fox.
As a concession to Fox, the administration is considering backing off plans to require Mexicans to be fingerprinted and photographed even if they have "laser visas" that allow them to remain only three days and require them to stay close to the border.
The Associated Press first reported the plan. A decision has not been made, said an administration official who refused to be named. But Department of Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson told reporters after appearing before a congressional panel, "I think that is what probably will be necessary."