President Bush on Sunday urged his supporters in the coal and steel belt to begin courting Democrats and independents, and advisers said he will do the same with a convention speech that includes plans aimed at strengthening high schools and helping the uninsured.
Speaking to a packed arena outside Pittsburgh, where mentions of hunting, fishing and Jesus all received thunderous ovations, Bush said his followers must not forget to register Democrats and "discerning independents" to vote this fall in a traditionally Democratic state that he won by six percentage points in 2000.
"I believe our message is good for Republicans, I believe our message is good for Democrats, and I believe our message is good for independents," Bush said. His campaign underscored its new outreach effort by having Bush introduced by a Democrat, steelworker and shop steward Rick Casini, who called Bush the "original promise keeper, the man who saved steel" by imposing tariffs on imports for 20 months.
The steelworker was booed when he began by saying, "My name is Rick Casini and I'm a Democrat."
Bush's aides have built expectations for the agenda he plans to reveal in his acceptance speech Thursday night at the Republican National Convention, but party officials said it will consist largely of a repackaging of past ideas, with one official calling it "evolutionary rather than revolutionary." Although the agenda will be modest, these officials said, Bush will offer himself as a "transformational" leader who understands the changing economy and global terrorism and has solutions for both.
Karen Hughes, Bush's longtime confidante, said Bush will announce "new policies in areas that you are familiar with because the things that the president is passionate about aren't going to change."
Other advisers said Bush will introduce a successor to the No Child Left Behind Act that will try to impose accountability on high schools and improve math and science instruction. They said he also will pledge to work to make health insurance more affordable for individuals and companies. He does not plan to announce a new tax cut, although he will speak generally about the virtues of tax simplification and will continue to say that creating jobs is his top domestic priority, the advisers said.
Despite stock market declines since he brought up the idea in his last campaign, Bush will renew his call for younger workers to be able to invest part of their Social Security taxes as part of his "ownership society" but will not specifically say how he would pay for the transition from the current system.
"If you're a younger worker, you better listen very carefully to the presidential debates on Social Security," Bush told the crowd of 10,000 at WesBanco Arena. "The fiscal solvency of Social Security is in doubt for the young workers coming up. Therefore, I think young workers ought to be able to own a personal retirement account, a personal savings account, in order for Social Security to work."
Bush won West Virginia by portraying Vice President Al Gore as an environmentalist hostile to coal, and he is trying to reprise that strategy with Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). "I'm running against a fellow who is kind of shifting," the president said. "A while ago, he said coal is a dirty source of energy. Then he decided he wanted to come to your state, and knock on your door. And then he said, now, well, I am for legislation that is supporting clean coal technology. In other words, he shifted. He's out there mining for votes."
Kerry's campaign issued a statement saying Bush "has played politics with the steel industry from day one, and his miscalculations have hurt steelworkers," asserting he championed free trade before imposing tariffs and then pulled them "before the steel industry could recover." Appropriating a signature line from Bush's campaign, the statement said the nation needs "steady leadership when it comes to helping steelworkers, not political posturing."
Bush started his day at St. John's Episcopal Church, across from the White House, then went mountain biking at the Secret Service training facility in Beltsville before flying to West Virginia. Afterward, he was to meet with aides in the White House theater to read aloud passages of the speech -- which will last 50 minutes to an hour -- as they continued to edit it.