President Bush eschewed his customary Labor Day speech to union workers Monday, keeping his focus on national security issues at a campaign rally here as Democratic challenger John F. Kerry tried to turn the election-year debate to jobs and the economy.
Since becoming president, Bush has spent Labor Day with a trade-union audience: Teamsters in Michigan in 2001, carpenters in Pennsylvania in 2002 and operating engineers in Ohio last year. But with the election two months away and labor firmly against him, he observed this Labor Day by taking a bicycle ride at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Md., before flying here to address thousands of supporters in this battleground state's rural southeast corner.
Bush, delivering his regular stump speech in a light rain, defended the Iraq war and challenged Kerry's criticism of his handling of the conflict, saying, "It was right for America, and it's right for America now that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power."
The president did not tailor his remarks to Labor Day, but he repeated his assertion that the economy is "strong and getting stronger," and hailed the unemployment rate of 5.4 percent as below the average of each of the past three decades. "I've got a plan to keep this economy moving forward," Bush said, calling for more job training and a reduction in health care costs.
Kerry, in West Virginia, gave a Labor Day speech that amplified his criticism of Bush on job creation. "In the last three years, West Virginia lost 11,000 manufacturing jobs, but just today, a report came out that shows we've replaced those good jobs with low-wage jobs -- ones that pay an average of $9,000 less," Kerry said, arguing that many of the new jobs are temporary or do not have health benefits. "The choice in this election couldn't be more clear: Do we want four more years of lost jobs and falling wages?" Kerry asked.
The report was produced by the Kerry campaign, using Labor Department statistics released last week to update a similar report from January by the liberal Economic Policy Institute. The campaign said that new jobs are 19 percent less likely to offer health insurance and that 12 percent of new jobs are temporary, twice the "typical rate."
In a statement, Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry advisers "skew their report by looking at data going all the way back to November 2001, just two months after the attacks of September 11th."
As Bush arrived for an overnight and three-stop bus tour of Missouri, a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll showed him with a 52 percent to 45 percent lead over Kerry among likely voters. The poll showed a post-convention "bounce" for Bush, who had 50 percent in an Aug. 26 poll by the same consortium, but less of a gain than was seen in polls taken during the Republican convention last week.
Poplar Bluff, near the Arkansas border, is an unorthodox stop for a presidential campaign at this late stage of the race. Rural, white and poor, the town has a population of 16,500 and median household income of about $22,000, or half the state median. But the area is clearly friendly to Bush's conservative message: The road leaving the airport at nearby Cape Girardeau is Rush H. Limbaugh Jr. Drive, named for the radio commentator's father.
The White House added the stop in Poplar Bluff after local business people gathered about 10,500 signatures on a request that Bush come to town.
Vice President Cheney, on a visit to the Minnesota State Fair in St. Paul, also kept his focus on national security rather than domestic matters. He reminded his audience of next weekend's third anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and warned of "the possibility of a terror cell using one of these very deadly weapons of mass destruction, if you will, against one of our own cities."
In Minnesota, Cheney briefly mentioned the administration's plans to create jobs in a second term by further cutting taxes and government regulations, limiting malpractice awards and giving tax credits to buy health insurance. But when it came time for questions from the pre-selected crowd, only one questioner asked about foreign policy or terrorism.
Asked about the populist refrain from Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee, that government should reduce inequity between "two Americas," divided between rich and poor, Cheney described it as "some sort of class system or class warfare approach," adding, "It's certainly not been my experience. Obviously, I've been very fortunate in my life, but I think if you start out with that basic assumption, it's really a misperception of the way our country works and should work."
Lynne Cheney underscored that point by reminding listeners that as a youth her husband had worked digging ditches, laying pipe and loading bentonite onto rail cars.
The vice president sampled some goodies from Sweet Martha's Cookie Jar and a $9 six-bone rib plate from Famous Dave's barbecue. The photo op was interrupted by a handful of Kerry supporters, who yelled as Cheney stood behind the cookie counter, "How does it feel to work a minimum-wage job?"
Hsu reported from Minnesota.