LAS CRUCES, N.M., Aug. 26 -- It's about 1,900 miles from Ground Zero to this desert outpost, but the attacks on the World Trade Center three years ago were never far from President Bush's lips as he campaigned through New Mexico on Thursday.
With Rudolph W. Giuliani serving as his warm-up act, Bush and the former New York mayor praised each other's responses to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in three rallies across this battleground state.
"During the worst day of my life, the worst days of my life, President Bush stood by us," Giuliani said in his introduction. "He kept every commitment, did everything he could, to rebuild my city and to make my city and my country better than they were before that terrible event."
Bush promptly returned the compliment. "I'm so proud to be traveling with a man who is a strong leader, a man who brought calm to the citizens of New York City during a tragic day, a man who helped lift the spirit of that important part of our country," he said.
The mutual adoration had a purpose. With the Republican National Convention beginning Monday in midtown Manhattan, the Bush campaign is eager to refresh Americans' memories of the president's finest hour: his actions after the terrorist attacks, when a divided country unified behind the president. To underscore that point, Bush is planning to visit a fire station during the convention, and Giuliani is to address the assembly in prime time.
As he does in most stump speeches, Bush on Thursday recalled his response to the attacks. "None of us will ever forget that week when one era ended and another began. On September the 14th, with Rudy by my side, I stood in the ruins of the twin towers," Bush said. "There were workers in hard hats yelling at me, 'Whatever it takes!' A fellow just came out of the rubble, he had bloodshot eyes -- he looked at me right in the eye and said, 'Do not let me down.' "
Neither Bush nor Giuliani made reference to the news produced Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau, which reported that the number of Americans in poverty increased by 1.3 million last year, to 35.8 million, and the number without health insurance increased by 1.4 million, to nearly 45 million.
The Kerry campaign quickly noted that 5.2 million people have lost health insurance under Bush and 4.3 million have fallen into poverty. Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, also here Thursday (Air Force One and Edwards's plane rested across from each other on the tarmac here), called for a higher minimum wage and vowed: "We say no forever to any American working full time and still living in poverty!"
Bush, however, was buoyant about economic prospects. "Because we acted, our economy since last summer has grown at a rate as fast as any in nearly 20 years," he said. "Because we acted, we've created about 1.5 million new jobs over the past 12 months."
Bush acknowledged that "we have more to do to make quality health care available and affordable," but he reminded audiences that he added a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.
As is often the case, Bush discussed much of his presidency through the prism of Sept. 11. "The world changed on a terrible September morning, and since that day we have changed the world," he said. He then discussed gains in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, prefacing each comparison with the refrain "before September 11th." Bush also justified his decision to invade Iraq with the 2001 attacks. "Do I forget the lessons of September the 11th, and trust the word of a madman, or take action to defend America?" he asked.
It was Bush's first time campaigning this season with Giuliani at his side, and both men clearly enjoyed the novelty of having a New Yorker campaigning in the Southwest. Giuliani began his speech here with faux confusion, saying, "It's great to be here in Brooklyn."
Bush, who just finished a week of vacation on his Texas ranch, said in an aside to Giuliani: "This is a part of the world, Rudy, where the boots outnumber the suits. Nice to be in country where the cowboy hats outnumber the ties."