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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Bush Hears Straight Talk From Steelworkers

A rare session aboard his private bus yields a polite but pointed view of Ohioans' concerns.

August 21, 2004|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

CANTON, Ohio — As President Bush's campaign bus barreled down Interstate 77 toward this Rust Belt city on a recent Saturday morning, an unusual focus group with 10 local steelworkers convened inside the vehicle. Conducting the session was Bush himself.

Even in an election year, Bush's direct encounters with the public have been infrequent, fleeting and almost always choreographed. In the free-flowing give-and-take aboard his private bus, however, the president got a polite but candid earful about the uneasy feeling many such workers have about the economy.

In the process, Bush had a rare opportunity to get his own fix on an issue that was not going his way in some politically critical areas, including Ohio. And the bus session, as well as the campaign stop immediately after it, reflected Bush's continuing search for ways to deliver a positive economic message without seeming out of touch with ordinary voters.

"There was a lot of anxiety" over the economy, said participant Vince Martino, describing the meeting later. "The president said he could feel the tension there and understood."

At one point, as Bush was talking about his efforts to make health insurance more widely available, a steelworker named Tom Miller, who described himself as a loyal supporter, all but interrupted the president to say, "Insurance is important, but it doesn't mean a lot if you don't have a job."

At the next campaign stop, Bush made a point of expressing empathy with the region, telling 5,000 raucous supporters: "I just traveled on the bus with workers who told me they are nervous about their future. They're concerned. I am too."

This week, Bush continued to deal with the subject in ways calculated to show that he understood such workers' pain. He virtually banished the phrase "turning a corner" from his public remarks on the economic outlook -- a line he had begun using not long before.

On Wednesday, addressing voters in Chippewa Falls, Wis., Bush praised the economic energy of farmers, workers and small-business owners, saying "well-timed tax cuts" had helped lift the economy. But he prefaced his remarks by acknowledging problems. "There's more to be done to keep this economy growing. We've been through a lot," he said.

"We've done our job. We've created the conditions for economic growth, but there is more work to do,'' he said later in words that reflected the fine line he hoped to walk: talking up the economy without seeming insensitive to those having trouble.

The Ohio workers he met with -- employed by Timken Co., an old-line manufacturer of ball bearings and other steel products -- live under the threat of plant closings. Details of their free-flowing session of July 31 were provided by seven of the 10 participants in interviews, and generally confirmed by aides from the White House and the president's campaign.

The group included Democrats and Republicans, white-collar workers and union members.

The participants all cited Bush's personal charm, and his ability to put them at ease and encourage candor.

There wasn't room for everyone to sit, for example, so a few had to stand. Bush offered his recliner to Betsy Burns, a products inspector. Taken aback, she demurred.

"This is an executive order. Sit down!" the president barked. Amid much laughter, Burns saluted and settled into the president's cushy chair while he remained standing throughout the session.

"That really broke the ice," said Jeff Clark, director of advanced product technology.

Timken has been in the news in this campaign because Bush visited one of its facilities here in 2003 and said his tax cuts would create jobs. But this year, the company announced plans to close three Canton-area ball-bearing plants that employed 1,300 workers.

Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, has pointed to Timken's problems as symptomatic of what he says are Bush's flawed economic policies.

Employment concerns were definitely on the minds of the workers Bush met with, and they said he shared their anxieties.

"The job security issue was the single item that was bad, from his perspective," said Susan Palomba, Timken's manager of healthcare benefits.

"Every time someone else chimed in [about job worries], others nodded their heads in agreement," added Sharon Jordan, a quality analyst at one of the targeted ball-bearing plants.

In response to the participants' economic concerns, Palomba, Jordan and others said, Bush talked up the benefits of his tax cuts, as well as potential economic gains from his pending initiatives, such as a national energy plan.

When Jordan, a mother of three, fretted about the cost of college, Bush responded, "Sometimes we have to do things we don't like to do," referring to taking out loans. He also brought up the role of community colleges as "one of the best things going," Jordan said.

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