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St. Paul, Minn. — President Bush rolled into the St. Croix Valley aboard a red, white, and blue campaign bus marked "Heart and Soul, Moving America Forward." He took the stage for roughly 90 minutes, most of which he dedicated to a standard stump speech that's become increasingly familiar in the battleground states of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
But afterwards, in an event dubbed "Ask the President," Bush entertained questions from the crowd of about 1,500 ticket-holders. The questions were, by and large, friendly and supportive, but they did expand the discussion ever so slightly.
Asked about immigration, the president repeated his proposal to grant temporary-worker status to illegal immigrants currently residing in the U.S. On prescription drugs, Bush advocated moving generic drugs to the market faster, and he cautiously touched on the subject of importing cheaper medicines from Canada and other countries.
"There's a lot of pressure in Congress for importation, so I think it makes sense for us to make sure that we can do so in a safe way. If it's safe, then it makes sense," he said.
Drug importation is a hot topic across the country, and particularly in the Upper Midwest, where both Minnesota and Wisconsin host state-run Web sites linking consumers with Canadian pharmacies. Despite those efforts, though, Bush has continued to question the safety of drug imports, an argument also advanced by pharmaceutical manufacturers.
The president also singled out pre-screened audience members to champion tax breaks for individuals and small businesses.
Mike Shaver, who owns the manufacturing company Hudson Machine and Tool in Hammond, Wisc., told the president and the audience that the tax cuts helped him hire up to eight new employees.
"What made it possible for us to hire these people was the policies that you put in place that enable me to purchase capital equipment. And if I purchase capital equipment, I have to have people to run it," he said.
Bush argues that the tax cuts, which are scheduled to expire over the next several years, have helped lift the country out of recession. And he's pledged to make the changes permanent.
"See, it helps people. It helps them with their lives. Tax relief helps families in tangible ways. And Congress needs to make it permanent. We don't need to be taking money out of the pockets of our small businesses and the working people here in America," Bush said.
Leaving Hudson, Bush traveled west to Minnesota, where hundreds of onlookers lined Interstate-94 to greet the motorcade. Arriving at the Xcel Center, he was greeted by 15,000 supporters and one DFL mayor of St. Paul. Earlier this month, Mayor Randy Kelly broke ranks with his party to endorse Bush, explaining that the uncertain global environment argued against a change in leadership.
Introducing Bush, Kelly praised the president as a uniter.
"It is not a Democrat America. It's not a Republican America. It is America for all the people. So let us all welcome a president for all the people, George W. Bush," Kelly said.
Bush returned the favor moments later.
"St. Paul has got a wise and tough and principled man as the mayor of this city," he said. "I appreciate him bucking the political winds to do what he thinks is right in the 2004 campaign."
Outside the Xcel Center, however, a crowd of Democrats had a different reading. Minneapolis Mayor and DFLer R. T. Rybak crossed the river to St. Paul to chide Bush and Kelly and encourage support for Democratic candidate John Kerry.
"We are going to carry St. Paul; we're going to carry Minneapolis; and we are going to carry Minnesota and the United States of America and elect a president," Rybak told the crowd.
Rybak and other Kerry supporters criticized Bush on his education record, charging that the president hadn't provided the funding necessary to support rigorous testing requirements in the federal No Child Left Behind law.
They also made note of the millions of Americans without health care and the struggling economy which continues to generate mixed signals. And protesters faulted the president for his handling of the war in Iraq.
But inside Xcel, the atmosphere was markedly different. Bush outlined the run-up to the Iraq invasion and, while acknowledging the absence so far of stockpiled weapons of mass destruction, presented the confrontation with Saddam Hussein in stark terms.
"So I had a choice to make: either to forget the lessons of September the 11th and trust a madman who is a sworn enemy of America or take action necessary to defend this country. Given that choice, I will defend America every time," Bush said.
Bush also mocked Kerry for allegedly shifting positions on the war. Kerry voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq and has recently said he would still have voted the same way, despite the apparent lack of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. But Kerry supporters say their candidate would have spent more time preparing, planning for the post-war environment, and seeking international cooperation.
Former Democratic Senator Max Cleland of Georgia held a veterans' rally at the state Capitol in support of Kerry. Cleland blasted Bush for executing the war in a hurried and inappropriate manner.
"We don't need what we got now, somebody that commits troops, stands up and plays dress up on an aircraft carrier that he doesn't know anything about -- and three weeks into the war says, 'Mission accomplished; bring 'em on.' Oh, yeah. Oh yeah, bring 'em on," Cleland said.
The dueling press conferences, rallies, and visits are yet another sign of Minnesota prominence this year as a battleground state. A Minnesota Public Radio-St. Paul Pioneer Press poll showed a statistically insignificant one-point spread between Bush and Kerry in early July. The poll also found that most voters were unlikely to change their minds before election day.
And the crowd at the St. Paul Bush rally certainly showed no sign of wavering.
"Just hearing how crazy the crowd was when he walked in, it's hard to believe that the state could vote against the president," said Kyle Estes of Shakopee. "But I do think that the president will come away with Minnesota. I hope so."
Exciting Estes and thousands more like him is precisely what the campaign visits are intended to do. Bush has been in Minnesota twice this month already, and the state's also seen appearances by Vice-President Dick Cheney and first lady Laura Bush in recent weeks.
On the Democratic side, vice presidential candidate John Edwards was in Minnesota last week. And Kerry campaign officials say Kerry himself will return in the near future.
MPR's Mark Zdechlik assisted in this report