La Crosse, Wisc. — President Bush cracked jokes, talked about the economy, and acknowledged a tough election season ahead as he addressed a flag-waving crowd in La Crosse. But more than anything the else the president focused his remarks on national security.
"We're still at war," he said. "Al Qaida is wounded but not broken. Terrorists are testing our will in Afghanistan and Iraq. Regimes in North Korea and Iran are challenging the peace. If America shows weakness and uncertainty in this decade the world will drift towards tragedy. This will not happen on my watch." Bush made the comments just hours after his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, answered questions from members of Congress about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. The situation has prompted Democrats to call for Rumsfeld's resignation.
The president only briefly mentioned the controversy, saying he was disgusted by what he called "the humiliating photos."
Instead, Bush spent his time at the podium talking about threats to American well-being, and it wasn't long before September 11 emerged as a favorite theme.
"As we all did that, these men and women searching through the rubble, took it personally. I have a responsibility that goes on. I will never relent in bringing justice to our enemies. I will defend the security of America whatever it takes," he said.
The president made his remarks from downtown baseball field with views of the Mississippi River. Organizers estimated the crowd at roughly 8,000 people. It was Bush's 10th visit to Wisconsin as President.
In the 2000 elections he lost the state to Al Gore by 5,708 votes. The narrow margin means Wisconsin is considered a battleground state. And it one area of the country where Bush has struggled in the past to attract rural white voters which in the rest of the country are his bread and butter.
Hundreds of soldiers from nearby Fort McCoy were in the crowd, wearing white T-shirts embossed with the American flag. They clapped and chanted "four more years."
Specialist Joshua Deaville says his battalion is expected to be shipped out to Afghanistan any day. Deavlle says he voted for Bush in 2000, and he says he plans to do the same in November. He says he liked what he heard.
"I think his comments on national security are probably foremost in mind as to why I would vote for him. So everything he had to say about the war I thought was very positive and very true," he said.
As people streamed out of the stadium clutching red, white, and blue Bush-Cheney signs, many stopped to buy souvenirs.
Fifth grader Fritz Wiggert helped his aunt sell buttons and T-shirts. "It's a picture of 'George W. Bush re-elect in '04,' and then this one -- 'God, guns, guts made America great, re-elect George Bush in '04.'"
This was Wiggert's third time seeing the president, and this time he got actually got to shake hands.
But not everyone was pleased to have the president visit LaCrosse. Just outside the cordoned-off area protesters banged pots, chanted anti-Bush slogans and waved signs.
On the far end stood Dwayne Vogeli. He' an outspoken Winona County Commissioner. Vogeli held a handmade poster that said "American Democracy or American Empire -- which will it, be?" And as if to make his point clearer, Vogeli even dressed for the role with an elaborate red and gold helmet, and fake armor.
"I am wearing an outfit of a Roman Legionnaire. A solider who served Creaser and went over and conquered foreign land and destroyed the Roman republic," he said.
LaCrosse's mayor, John Medinger, was among the protesters. He's a devout Democrat and wasn't invited to the Bush rally. He plans to send the campaign a bill for all of the security costs associated with the visit. Medinger says he'll do the same if John Kerry ever decides to bring his campaign to town.