President Bush on Monday urged "behavioral change" to curb the AIDS epidemic, and he scoffed at complaints that his Administration is not spending enough to find a cure.
At a news conference a day after several hundred AIDS activists had staged a march and "die-in" here, Bush said: "Here's a disease where you can control its spread by your own personal behavior. You can't do that in cancer."
Bush said he got "loud and clear" a message of compassion but added: "We're spending $4 billion a year on AIDS research. When you consider that on a per capita basis or compare it to heart disease or cancer, it's an awful lot. It's far more."
But, according to the Aids Action Council, a Washington-based lobbying group, the actual amount of federal spending is considerably less than $2 billion a year.
Bush said he opposes federally funded needle-exchange programs to curb the spread of the HIV virus, which causes AIDS.
"I am in favor of the most efficient and effective research possible," Bush said. "I'm in favor of compassion. I'm in favor of behavioral change."
It was his first public comment on the Sunday demonstration, in which the gay rights activists accused Bush of neglecting a disease that has killed tens of thousands of Americans in the last decade.
The demonstrators, organized by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, marched through the tiny downtown area of Kennebunkport, shouting slogans and waving signs.
Bush criticized the gay activists for hurting holiday business in this picturesque New England resort.
"If the message is compassion, I got it loud and clear," Bush told reporters at Walkers Point, his seaside vacation home. "To the degree the message hit some little merchant in Kennebunkport on the best weekend possible and caused that person to close his doors, I got that part of it and didn't like it," Bush said.
"You know why they were here, and I know why they were here. They were here because you all are here," the President told the White House press corps.
"They were here because they could get disproportionate television coverage and, to some degree, print coverage because the President happened to be at his ancestral home."
The demonstrators said that Bush's AIDS policy has spent billions of dollars but that most of it had gone to research on AZT, a drug that they said can, at best, only slow the progression of the disease.