GRAND RAPIDS, MICH., OCT. 16 -- His poll ratings falling and his party divided, President Bush hit the campaign trail this week with a tactic designed to change the subject: bash the Congress.
Bush's rhetoric, which he carried through five states in two days of campaign events, was part of a Republican strategy to try to take advantage of growing public frustration with politicians by casting the Democrats who control Congress as the insiders who should be punished.
"I know that Americans are fed up with much of the political debate coming out of Washington," Bush said, almost as if he too were an outsider running against the establishment.
He called on voters to "send Congress a wake-up call" on Election Day. Read that: throw the rascals out.
At stops in Texas, Nebraska, Iowa, Michigan and Illinois, the president's theme was a mix of attacking Congress and appealing for support for his Persian Gulf policies. Rallies took on a patriotic air with tributes to U.S. military forces in the gulf, gigantic American flags and, here in Illinois, the singing of "American Boy," a new anthem for the troops in the Middle East by country music singer Eddie Rabbit. ("Red, white and blue from my head to my toe. I'm an American boy.")
But Bush also got a firsthand look at opposition to his gulf policies. At all three stops today -- here in Michigan, in the Republican stronghold of DuPage County near Chicago and in Des Moines -- he was interrupted by one or more hecklers shouting, among other things, "No blood for oil."
In Des Moines, Bush calmly responded, "Some people never get the word. The fight isn't about oil, the fight is about naked aggression."
The three hecklers were quickly removed, to a crescendo of applause from Bush's supporters.
Although Bush has been greeted by small groups of picketers at nearly every stop recently, including some protesting his Middle East deployment, the appearance of hecklers inside campaign events today marked an escalation in the opposition.
Bush used his campaign swing to try to shift the increasingly partisan budget debate from Democratic charges that he and the Republicans are soft on the rich to more familiar Republican terrain accusing the Democrats of wanting to raise taxes because they cannot control their own appetite to spend the public's money.
Even before the House began debate today on a Democratic plan to reduce the deficit by sharply raising taxes on the wealthy, Bush was on the stump trying to stir up public opposition. In particular, he attacked the House Democratic plan for delaying tax indexing for a year, although he appeared to be confused about the details of what the Democratic bill would do.
"They're saying it's a 'soak-the-rich' deal," he said. "But inevitably it gets into your pocket." He vowed to veto the House Democratic plan.
With the White House and Congress heading for another budget showdown later this week, Bush decided today to cancel his trip to the second game of the World Series Wednesday night in Cincinnati. After conferring with Republican congressional leaders, Bush decided "it would be good to be in Washington" because the budget had reached a critical moment, press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said.
Bush repeatedly reminded audiences that Democrats control the Congress and therefore are responsible for the budget stalemate. "I'll take my share of hits, but I believe the American people really know that the problem has always been the failure of this one-party-controlled Congress to hold down spending," he said. "We're not taxing you too little. We're spending too much."
Democratic Party officials, meanwhile, unveiled a new campaign ad on the budget battle that accuses the president and the GOP of being "willing to shut down our government to push through a tax plan that benefits people earning over $200,000 a year."
The ad, produced by the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, will be aired in the Washington area later this week and is being offered to Democratic candidates nationwide. The campaign spot, which juxtaposes pictures of a limousine and a fancy dinner party with those of senior citizens and factory workers, argues that Democrats "don't want you to get stuck with the bill" for a deficit caused by "tax breaks for the rich."
"It clearly states the divisions between us and the White House," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), who said he will be using the spot in his reelection contest. "The American public deserves to know who is shutting down the government."
Bush flatly appealed to the voters to send him more Republicans next month, a gamble that appeared tied more to the encouragement of anti-incumbent voting patterns than an attempt to transfer his own popularity to other Republican candidates.
The president's anti-Congress rhetoric often was exceeded by Republican candidates for whom he was campaigning. In Omaha Monday night, Republican congressional candidate Ally Milder helped warm up the crowd by seeming to coin a bumper-sticker phrase ("Congress happens") and describing the Congress as "full of rats gnawing at the ship of state."
It's time to "throw the rats overboard," she said.
Staff writer Tom Kenworthy contributed to this report from Washington.