President Bush proposed new educational benefits for National Guardsmen and reservists on Wednesday, using a campaign appearance here to appeal to part-time troops disillusioned by extended tours of duty in Iraq.
Bush said those who serve more than 90 consecutive days on active duty in the Guard and the reserves would be given enhanced payments for schooling, and he said rules would be changed to make it easier for children in military families to change schools when the families move. "We'll continue to stand side by side with those who wear the uniform and with the family members of those who wear the uniform," the president said at an open-air rally for Republican faithful in western Wisconsin.
As he has done in other recent rallies, Bush tucked the policy proposals into a stump speech that harshly criticized Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry and said the senator from Massachusetts took a "blame America" approach to terrorism. "He says that going to war with the terrorists is actually improving their recruiting efforts," Bush said, adding: "It's wrong to blame America for anger and the evil of these killers. We don't create terrorists by fighting back. You defeat the terrorists by fighting back."
Bush was referring to a statement Kerry made two weeks ago in which he said: "I believe this administration, in its policies, is actually encouraging the recruitment of terrorists. We haven't done the work necessary to reach out to other countries. We haven't done the work necessary with the Muslim world."
In another assault on Kerry that has become a standard part of Bush's speeches, the president ridiculed Kerry's Iraq position. "Now, almost two years after he voted for the war in Iraq, and seven months after switching positions to declare himself the antiwar candidate, my opponent has found a new nuance," Bush said. "He now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq."
Bush's statement that Kerry had called himself "the antiwar candidate" is based on an interview on MSNBC's "Hardball" show earlier this year in which host Chris Matthews asked Kerry if he was "one of the antiwar candidates." Kerry replied that he was, "in the sense that I don't believe the president took us to war as he should have." Kerry added: "Was there a way to hold Saddam Hussein accountable? You bet there was, and we should have done it right."
As Bush made his appeal to military families here, Kerry made a similar pitch at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Cincinnati. "Military families are going through difficult times these days; many of their loved ones are in faraway places, leaving them to care for their families alone," he said.
Invoking his service in Vietnam and the more than 940 Americans killed in Iraq, Kerry added that "you and I, who once left our families and our shores to defend the principles that make America great, understand more than most the cost of keeping our country free."
The dueling appeals to military families underscored the importance of foreign affairs in this year's presidential campaign. According to a new poll by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, national security and foreign affairs are viewed by voters as more important than the economy for the first time since the Vietnam War.
The cost of Bush's proposals are modest. A White House spokesman said the expanded education benefits for the nearly 150,000 guardsmen and reservists now mobilized would be paid for with existing funds. Bush's fiscal 2005 budget anticipates spending $10 million on "voluntary reciprocity" programs for preventing disruptions to children of military personnel who move.
Traveling with Bush was Karen Hughes, a key figure in his 2000 election who joined the campaign this week at a salary of about $15,000 per month. "I took the training wheels off today," said Hughes, who will travel with Bush for the rest of the campaign.
Bush's visit to Wisconsin, on the eve of a week-long Texas vacation, was his 13th as president to this state, one of about 15 states considered battlegrounds for the election. After the Chippewa Falls rally, Bush took a bus tour through rural Wisconsin, his third this year, stopping at a cheese factory and at the training camp of the Kansas City Chiefs football team. In the afternoon, Bush fielded friendly questions from supporters at a waterside rally in Hudson, Wis., before attending a third campaign event in St. Paul, Minn.
In Hudson, two supporters told Bush they were praying for him, and one named an opponent rarely mentioned on the campaign trail. "The enemy that we need the greatest freedom from right now happens to be Satan," the supporter said.
Bush rapidly changed the subject.