President Bush campaigned in Northern Virginia yesterday, speaking to an invitation-only crowd of more than 1,400 supporters after other Republican leaders predicted he would win big this fall in a state that has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in four decades.
The president used the event at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale to accompany his latest television advertisement, released yesterday in 18 states and on cable, which highlights the importance of encouraging private ownership and personal control. Bush said government should empower people to take control of their investments, retirement plans and health care decisions.
"See, if you own and control your own health care plan, you can move from job to job without worrying as to whether or not you're going to get health coverage for your family," Bush told the gathering of Republican activists, elected officials, donors and campaign volunteers. "If you own your own home and are building equity in your own home and you're changing from job to job, it provides great security and relief."
On stage with Bush were several people who the president said exemplify his message. A small-business owner from Great Falls talked about her company, an online community network exchanging information on services, activities and events. A first-time home buyer bantered with Bush about the importance of that decision. A couple talked about retirement savings, and a veterinarian discussed his difficulty paying for health insurance.
Bush took a few questions from the audience on topics that included education policy, government waste and nuclear proliferation. Bush said the United States is working cooperatively with other governments to bring Iran's nuclear program to an end.
"The foreign ministers of Germany, France and Great Britain have gone in as a group to send a message on behalf of the free world that Iran must comply with the demands of the free world," Bush said. "And that's where we sit right now."
The president received thunderous applause and a standing ovation when he responded to a question about the Senate's continuing effort to block Republican judicial nominees.
"I think my nominees deserve an up or down vote on the floor of the United States Senate," he said. "So I guess, you know, they're playing politics. I appreciate your question, because they're playing politics. That's all that is."
Some of Virginia's leading Republicans had warmed up the already friendly crowd. U.S. Sen. George Allen vowed to "win big" for the president in November and ridiculed Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee, as an "elite Massachusetts liberal" who does not embrace "the values we hold dear in the commonwealth of Virginia."
Allen asked for a show of hands from people who had driven to the event in a pickup truck or a sport-utility vehicle, then added: "Heck, John Kerry doesn't even like what you drive."
Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, who is running for governor in 2005, reflected on the Kerry campaign's comments that the Democrat is making Virginia a competitive state this year. The last Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia was Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
"We have heard lately a lot of crazy claims about Virginia," Kilgore said. "I'm here as the Bush chairman [of Virginia] to set the record straight. You ready? Virginia is Bush country!"
Outside, about 125 Democrats rallied in the campus parking lot. One held a sign that said "Stop Cutting Forests, Start Cutting Staff." Another said "Kerry Us Home." Several waved signs supporting Kerry and his vice presidential running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.).
Kerry Donley, chairman of the Virginia Democratic Party, said the event was evidence that Bush campaign officials are responding to Kerry's efforts in the state. Kerry has run biographical television ads there this summer, and Virginia was part of a 20-state advertising campaign launched by the Democratic National Committee after the party's nominating convention in Boston.
"The attorney general just has a problem with his tense," Donley said of Kilgore. "Virginia was Bush country. It's now competitive and in play."
If so, it was hard to tell inside the gymnasium. Virtually everyone in the crowd was a strong Bush supporter who had received an e-mail invitation to get tickets to the rally. People leapt to their feet when Bush strode into the gym.
"He's rallying his troops and letting us know his vision for America," said Shaun Kenney, a Republican chairman in Spotsylvania County, who came with his wife and two small boys. "I'm excited."
Lou Dorfman, an Army officer from Woodbridge who brought his 9-year-old son, Robert, said Bush had autographed a sign and thanked Dorfman for his service.
"To have the commander in chief thank you for being in the service, I'm still emotional," Dorfman said. Asked whether he thinks Kerry has a chance of carrying Virginia, Dorfman said: "Not at all."