Bush's Cabinet Members Pay Visits to Swing States

Times Staff Writers

Members of President Bush's Cabinet are fanning out these days on official visits to swings states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, New Mexico and Michigan.

Although executive branch agencies are supposed to be nonpartisan, the political appointees who run them usually work in some cheerleading for the president during election season. Democrats say the Bush administration has taken the practice to new levels.

One of the Cabinet's most energetic stump speakers is Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who this year has made public appearances in 22 states, 15 of which have been presidential battlegrounds.

Another frequent flier is Commerce Secretary Don Evans, who since January has visited 25 states, 15 of which are considered to be up for grabs in the election.

On Tuesday, Sen. John F. Kerry's presidential campaign criticized the White House for a group of pre-election speeches given by Bush's national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice. Her predecessors have traditionally kept a low profile during campaigns, as have most officials involved in national security.

If all goes according to plan, Rice will have made appearances in the three largest swing states -- Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio -- during the last month of the election cycle.

In 2000, then-vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney criticized President Clinton's Cabinet members for campaigning on behalf of Democratic candidate Al Gore.

For Snow, a visit Wednesday to a Tampa, Fla., high school marked his fifth trip to Florida this year. "I'm not on a campaign trip, so I don't make direct political comments. But I will say this: Maintaining the low tax rates has been very beneficial to the American economy," he told reporters.

A day earlier in Lancaster, Pa., Snow delivered a similar endorsement of the Bush administration's tax cuts.

Bush appears to be deploying Cabinet secretaries on the campaign trail more aggressively than his predecessors, said Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

"Usually, presidents have been somewhat sensitive about using their Treasury secretaries in an explicitly political way," Baker said. "Snow certainly is very visible."

At the Commerce Department, Evans' spokesman Ron Bonjean denied any partisan political motivation. "Part of his job is to travel the country and listen to small-business owners and manufacturers about the problems they face and the solutions the Bush administration has to offer," he said.

So far this month, Evans has visited Arizona, Wisconsin, Oregon, Nevada and Florida, where he made two appearances this week. All but Arizona are considered swing states.

Evans was scheduled to meet with manufacturers today in Iowa, another toss-up state.

Officials involved in national security issues tend to be circumspect about politics during the elections. In general, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld have followed that practice.

Rice's travels prompted the Kerry campaign to bring together five widows of Sept. 11 victims to issue a statement. "Her time would be far better spent tracking down Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda terrorists -- the people who killed our husbands -- and pushing for full adoption of the 9/11 commission recommendations," the widows said of Rice in the statement.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Rice merely has responded to invitations for her to speak. "She continued to be accessible to the American people," he said. "The speeches that she has given are engagements that she was invited to attend."

Rice's itinerary also prompted the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee to demand an investigation of whether she violated the Hatch Act, which restricts the political activities of federal employees.

"While Dr. Rice is not prevented from speaking during the campaign, her engagements appear to cross the line of legality," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), adding that he was troubled Rice had gone beyond a defense of administration policies to attack Kerry.

Other administration officials have traveled less, but also made recent visits to presidential battlegrounds. They include Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman. Their offices denied that partisan politics helped to shape their schedules.

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Times staff writers Mark Mazzetti, Paul Richter, Emma Schwartz and Rick Schmitt contributed to this report.

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