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Election 2004

As a perk, Bush coming to Tampa

Part campaign, part official business, the president will talk about job growth at a window and door manufacturer.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
Published February 13, 2004

President Bush will fly into Tampa Sunday night after stopping at the Daytona 500, underscoring once again the importance of Central Florida to his re-election.

It will be the president's 19th visit to Florida and fifth to Tampa since he was elected.

The president will spend Sunday night in Tampa and stage a "conversation on the economy" the next day at a family-owned window and door manufacturer that has hired 60 people in the past year. It is intended to bolster the president's contention that his policies have sparked an economic recovery, which Democrats dispute.

While a presidential visit to an important swing state in an election year has all the earmarks of a campaign visit, this is being billed as an official visit, with taxpayers picking up the tab.

It's a perk of being president, political experts say.

This year, Bush's itinerary has virtually mirrored the path of Democrats, visiting states just before or after primaries.

He went to South Carolina just days after the primary. Likewise for New Hampshire and Missouri.

Thursday, Bush visited Pennsylvania, a state crucial to his re-election that holds its Democratic primary in April. It was his 25th visit to Pennsylvania, which Al Gore won in 2000.

Florida, another crucial state, holds its primary in three weeks.

"The campaign never stops," said Bruce Altschuler, author of several books on presidential campaigns. "The day you're elected is the day you start your re-election campaign."

White House officials say the president is merely doing his job.

"The president continues to travel throughout the country to discuss his policies and initiatives for America," White House spokesman Taylor Gross said. "The president is reaching out Americans to discuss his goals for America and our economy."

Hillsborough GOP chairman Al Higginbotham noted he had not been informed of the president's visit or invited to any event as of Thursday morning.

"It can be hard to separate the two with any White House visit, but if there's no campaign rally there is a clear distinction," he said.

The public will see little of Bush in Tampa.

On Sunday afternoon, Bush, a self-proclaimed stock car fan, will watch the start of the Daytona 500, two months after he honored NASCAR's top drivers at the White house. During his 2000 presidential campaign, he was grand marshal for the Pepsi 400.

It's no coincidence that the key voter demographic this election year has been dubbed the NASCAR dad, generally defined as white, working-class men who lean Republican but are more concerned about values than party labels.

After spending Sunday night in Tampa, Bush will visit NuAir Manufacturing, a window and door fabricator run by a Hispanic woman. The family owned company near the Town 'N Country section of Tampa offers more than 250,000 products and has been in business for nearly 50 years.

The president's Florida visit bookends the Interstate 4 corridor, an important swath of swing voters.

Florida is an obvious target for Bush. It's the state that decided the 2000 election, is led by his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, and it leads the nation in big-money donors to his campaign.

On Feb.20, Vice President Dick Cheney will be in Tampa for a fundraiser, and eight days later Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman will be the main speaker at the Hillsborough Republican Party's annual Lincoln Day dinner fundraiser.

Bush has mined Florida for more than $11-million since late June, raising $1-million in Palm Beach last month and more than $10.8-million during 2003. He raised more Florida money in 2003 than all the Democratic contenders combined.

Democrats have criticized Bush's recent round of official visits around the country. This month, the Democratic National Committee called them "taxpayer-financed campaigning."

The practice has a long history. So does the partisan criticism.

President Clinton made dozens of official trips during the 1996 Republican primaries and was criticized by Republicans.

In 1992, Democrats filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission accusing the first President Bush of traveling too much on the taxpayer's dime.

And 1980, Republicans criticized Jimmy Carter about using presidential perks on the campaign trail.

One prominent Tampa Democrat says the president is merely using the powers of his office.

"He's trying to reach out to the people, and not by way of a slick ad on TV," said Janee Murphy, chairwoman of the Hillsborough Democratic Executive Committee. "He's trying to follow up with the momentum we Democrats have created."

- Times staff writer Adam Smith and researchers Cathy Wos and John Martin contributed to this report. Tamara Lush can be reached at (727) 893-8612.

[Last modified February 13, 2004, 01:45:34]

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