President Bush on Friday furthered his effort to raise the importance of cultural issues in the campaign, tailoring a speech here on sex trafficking to appeal to Florida's Cuban exiles and to religious conservatives.
Bush's speech was officially a nonpolitical appearance at a Justice Department conference on trafficking in forced labor. But he cast his message in religious and moral terms and added an extended criticism of Fidel Castro -- appealing to two important constituencies in this fiercely contested state.
"The regime in Havana, already one of the worst violators of human rights in the world, is adding to its crimes: The dictator welcomes sex tourism," Bush said. "We have put a strategy in place to hasten the day when no Cuban child is exploited to finance a failed revolution and every Cuban citizen will live in freedom."
Cuba was not mentioned in the State Department's annual report on human trafficking in 2001 and 2002, which a spokesman said was an indication that the United States could not determine that there were at least 100 victims in that country. But, in the past two years, Cuba has been categorized as one of the leading offenders, this year ranking in the top 10 with other countries such as North Korea, Burma, Sudan and Venezuela.
If the appeal to Cuban Americans was overlooked, Bush underscored the message by stopping his motorcade at a Cuban cafe, la Tropicana, where he ordered ham, pork and cheese sandwiches and handed over $19.11.
Bush has been working to elevate social issues in the presidential race, focusing attention on a more hospitable subject than the economy and the Iraq war, two favorite themes of Democratic opponent John F. Kerry. Bush's Saturday radio address, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, will feature "a changing-the-culture message that really focuses on strengthening families." The Bush campaign launched television ads emphasizing his antiabortion message on Thursday, a day after Bush's push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage failed in the Senate.
After the Florida visit, Bush flew to Beckley, W.Va., to speak at a campaign rally before returning to Washington for the weekend. The West Virginia trip, on which Bush added to his stump speech an accusation that Kerry would decimate the state's coal industry, came a week after Kerry held a rally nearby and 12 days after Bush's previous visit to the state. West Virginia is one of the nearly 20 most evenly split states.
Bush's brief speech in Tampa was given a moral cast by Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. He compared Bush to Abraham Lincoln and introduced him as "a leader who has called us to an understanding of freedom, not as America's gift to the world, but as the Almighty's gift to humanity."
The president, joined on the stage by his brother Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), described the trafficking in people as "one of the worst offenses against human dignity" and told attendees they are in "a fight against evil." Citing statistics showing that this trade has 600,000 to 800,000 victims annually -- 80 percent female and as many as 17,500 in the United States -- he said: "Human life is the gift of our Creator, and it should never be for sale."
Singling out Cuba for his most extended criticism, Bush referred to an 11-year-old remark by Castro acknowledging that prostitution had returned to Cuba since the communist revolution closed the brothels but saying that the country has "the cleanest and most educated prostitutes." Bush said Castro had "bragged" about the sex business.
Castro said of the allegation last month: "It is cynical to include Cuba in a list of states practicing trafficking of human beings, but it is still more infamous to claim that Cuba promotes child sex tourism."
Kerry's campaign on Friday faulted Bush for doing too little to combat human trafficking. It noted that the Senate still has not ratified a U.N. protocol on the subject signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000. "If the president were really serious about this issue, this protocol would have sailed through the Senate years ago," Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said.
Though there is bipartisan support for efforts to fight human trafficking, there have been partisan disagreements about the nature of U.N. involvement and the emphasis on prostitution over other types of forced labor such as sweatshops, farming and child soldiers. Various human rights group devoted to the issue did not participate in the Justice Department conference. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) issued a statement seeking to reclaim some credit for the issue, saying that this is one of the Clinton administration's greatest achievements.
Bush did not mention the U.N. protocol in his speech, but he said 24 nations have answered his call at the United Nations last year for countries to criminalize the trade in human beings. He said that his administration has provided more than $295 million for anti-trafficking programs and that the 110 traffickers charged in the United States in the past three years are triple the number charged in the previous three years.
Aboard Air Force One on his way to Florida, Bush, traveling with daughter Barbara, watched the coverage of the Tour de France, as he has often done in recent days. Taking a break from the bicycle race, Bush linked his fate to that of American cyclist Lance Armstrong, who is vying for his sixth win. "He's going to win and I'm going to win," Bush told reporters on the plane. "There's no need to worry about either race anymore."