President Bush on Friday hailed the liberation of 25 million women in Afghanistan and Iraq and vowed to continue promoting democracy -- especially in the Middle East -- so that more women can claim "their rightful place in societies that were once incredibly oppressive and closed."
At a White House event attended by a number of female Cabinet members and administration officials, the president highlighted a range of efforts to help women around the world, among them programs to stop human trafficking and the spread of AIDS.
The event seemed designed to appeal to women, a key voting bloc that has favored Democratic presidential candidates for more than a generation. On Wednesday, the president spoke to a meeting on women's entrepreneurship in Cleveland.
"This isn't the last time we're going to hear Bush talk about his concern for women and women's issues," said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst. "It's standard political fare to find a demographic group and pander to them."
In the closely contested 2000 election, Democrat Al Gore outpolled Bush among women, 54% to 43%.
But the Sept. 11 attacks and the ensuing war on terrorism have boosted Bush's hope of narrowing that gap. In the weeks after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Bush's approval rating among women surged from 47% to 84%, according to a Gallup Poll.
Early this year, Gallup Polls showed that about 50% of women approved of the job Bush was doing, compared with about 57% of men.
In his remarks Friday, Bush portrayed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the effort to improve the lives of women. He said the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan before U.S. went to war there, were "barbaric," preventing women from holding jobs or attending school.
"Every woman in Iraq is better off because the rape rooms and torture chambers of Saddam Hussein are forever closed. He is a barbaric person," Bush said.
His remarks came as the White House prepared to spend next week marking the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are to appear on the morning talk shows.
On Monday, the Energy Department will escort reporters to a high-security storage facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to see nuclear weapons components surrendered by Libya, which recently renounced its nuclear program. The tour is meant to showcase what the White House regards as a tangible benefit of its declared war on terrorism.
Bush is scheduled on Thursday to visit Ft. Campbell, Ky., home to thousands of servicemen and women. On Friday, the anniversary day, he is scheduled to speak at the White House on the war against terrorism. Later that day, he plans to visit wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
In his remarks Friday, Bush hailed the array of democratic reforms in the Middle East and stressed their benefits to women.
"In 2002, Bahrain elected its own parliament for the first time in nearly three decades," he said. "Liberty is marching. Oman has extended the vote to all adult citizens. On Monday, the sultan appointed the nation's first female Cabinet minister.... Qatar has a new constitution. Yemen has a multiparty political system. Kuwait has a directly elected National Assembly. Jordan held historic elections last summer. Times are changing."
Among those who shared the stage with the president and First Lady Laura Bush was Dr. Rajaa Habib Khuzaai, an obstetrician-gynecologist and member of the Iraqi Governing Council.
Bush recalled meeting Khuzaai after the fall of Baghdad. As she was ushered into the Oval Office, he said, Khuzaai greeted him as "my liberator!" and burst into tears.
"And so did I," Bush added.
Laura Bush told several hundred women jammed into the East Room that her husband was "firmly committed to the empowerment and education and health of women around the world."
The first lady is taking an increasingly prominent role in Bush's reelection campaign, focusing largely on such issues as literacy, teaching and on fighting heart disease among women.
Democrats, however, challenged the president's record on issues important to women.
The campaign of Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the party's presumed presidential nominee, said Bush had "a credibility gap" on women's issues because he has withheld more than $30 million earmarked for the United Nations Population Fund. Bush also has restricted U.S. funding of international health organizations that provide or offer counseling on abortions, the Kerry campaign said.
Next week, in addition to trumpeting the successes of the war against terrorism, Bush plans at least two appearances to highlight his domestic agenda. He has scheduled a Monday visit to Philadelphia to spotlight his initiative to increase minority homeownership and a Tuesday "conversation" on healthcare at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce here.