President Bush paid his first visit as president Tuesday to this blue-collar, Democratic stronghold, less than one month after Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) appeared in front of a boarded-up storefront here to brand his opponent's jobs-creation record as "mission not accomplished."
Kerry staged a campaign swing two weeks ago to promote his plans to make health care more affordable, and Bush devoted the taxpayer-paid trip to Youngstown to his efforts to help the uninsured get basic care.
Bush aides call the congruent locations and themes a coincidence. They say the same about the president's decision to focus on education the second week in May, after Kerry's education swing the first week in May.
Because just a few issues are exciting voters, and fewer than a score of states will drive the race, the presidential campaign has become something of an echo chamber. The repetition for swing-state voters also reflects the determination of each side to be sure that the other does not get the last word.
The Bush-Cheney campaign held house parties across the nation on April 29, featuring a speakerphone call from Vice President Cheney, then Kerry called his house parties across the nation last weekend. Bush's "Yes, America Can" bus tour, including stops in Michigan and Ohio, came a week after Kerry's "Jobs First Express" bus tour, which included stops in Michigan and Ohio.
Jim Jordan, former manager of Kerry's presidential campaign and now spokesman for an independent group called America Coming Together, said the follow-the-leader campaigning is another indication of the race's tightness. "With relatively few states in play, relatively few voters settling things in those states, and relatively few issues likely to move those voters, copycatting is almost inevitable," he said.
Ohio has lost ten of thousands of jobs during Bush's administration, imperiling his chances in a state he won by less than 4 percentage points in 2000.
Youngstown, once bustling with steel mills, has lost half its population since 1960, and had an unemployment rate in April of 13.3 percent -- fourth highest of any city or county in Ohio. Ohio suffered the nation's third-highest jobs losses for the year ending on April 30, but added 4,300 jobs in April.
Bush was on the ground for about two hours during his 17th presidential visit to Ohio, and departed from his frequent practice of visiting heavily Republican areas: Al Gore got 61 percent of the vote in 2000 in Mahoning County, which includes Youngstown.
"If Bush is looking for votes in Youngstown, he needs a new driver," Ohio Democratic Chairman Denny White joked in a telephone interview. The city is in heavily Democratic northeastern Ohio, devastated by manufacturing job losses during Bush's term.
But Bush strategists believe that tepid support for Kerry may give them opportunities in such areas, and hope Bush can perform better by appealing through values issues to the blue-collar voters once known as Reagan Democrats.
On the day after his prime-time address on the future of Iraq, Bush was speaking at Youngstown State University on a stage set built by the White House, with a backdrop made to look like a giant prescription slip with "Strengthening Healthcare" emblazoned behind the president. The focus was his administration's increase in the number and funding of community health centers, which provide limited services to a limited number of uninsured people.
"They treat bicycle injuries?" Bush said, to laughter and applause, joking about his weekend spill from a bicycle. "I was wearing my helmet, I want you to know."
Bush did not mention the economy or the jobs picture, for the nation or the state, although he noted Youngstown's jobs woes during a March visit to Cleveland. He said in a radio address three days later that "in cities like Youngstown and Cleveland, many workers are concerned about their future, about their benefits, and about the opportunities their children will have."
The event was an official visit, not a campaign trip, but the tickets were tightly controlled and local labor leaders said they had been unable to obtain a seat. Bush was sent off with a chant of "Four More Years."
Bush-Cheney campaign officials scoffed at the notion that they were getting their travel ideas from Kerry, and pointed out that presidential travel is planned, though rarely announced, long in advance. The campaign also cited instances in which Kerry and his aides appeared to echo their rhetoric, and noted that Kerry had said during a February interview with the New York Times, "We'll countermessage as we go through this."
Bush-Cheney spokesman Reed Dickens told the St. Petersburg Times in February that Kerry's "rhetoric and his record don't match." The Kerry campaign issued a news release two weeks later with the headline, "Kerry Says Bush Rhetoric at Odds with His Record."
Kerry's theme this week is energy independence, tied to rising gas prices. The White House has not announced Bush's theme for next week.