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Democrats Assail Visits by Bush on Heels of Primaries

Times Staff Writer

President Bush’s appearance here Monday marked the third time in recent weeks that he had visited a state within days of its presidential primary. Now, Democrats are accusing him of sticking taxpayers with the costs of what are essentially a political activity: responding to attacks from his potential 2004 rivals that arise during those contests.

“Bush’s visits, billed as ‘official events,’ are in reality taxpayer-financed campaigning,” the Democratic National Committee said in a statement.

The Democratic primaries, said DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, “are drawing a record number of voters, a fact that apparently has Bush and his campaign nervous enough to play second fiddle in state after state.”

White House officials said Bush’s stop Monday in the Ozarks was unrelated to Missouri’s Democratic primary last week.

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Rather, they said, the president was here to conduct “a conversation” on the economy with small-business owners and their employees.

“The president believes it’s important to get outside Washington, D.C., and talk about the big challenges that we face and that we’re working to meet,” said White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. “It’s a good opportunity for him to visit with people from around the country.”

On Thursday, Bush traveled to Charleston, S.C., two days after a primary there. On Jan. 29, he went to Merrimack, N.H., two days after that state’s primary.

“This is yet another sign of a worried White House,” said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political analyst.

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“The Democratic nominating contest has done real damage to Bush in several key swing states, including Iowa and New Hampshire -- both close in 2000. Of course these are political trips.”

Like Bush’s hourlong interview Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” his visits to Missouri, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- as well as to other key battleground states -- reveal his determination to let no Democratic attacks go unanswered.

On Thursday, Bush will travel to Pennsylvania, another swing state that he has visited more than two dozen times since becoming president. And this weekend, he plans to spend two days in Florida, which decided the election in 2000.

But Bush’s itinerary reflects “one of the advantages of incumbency, and every modern president has done exactly the same thing,” Sabato said.

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President Reagan, the elder President Bush and President Clinton all did the same thing, and their opponents “complained bitterly,” Sabato added.

The White House has been contending recently with attacks from the Democratic candidates on a number of fronts.

There have been questions about Bush’s claims -- which he now has abandoned -- that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The White House also had to admit recently that the price tag for Medicare reform and a prescription drug benefit would be one-third more than Bush had promised during the hard-fought drive to win congressional enactment of the bill.

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