MERRIMACK, N.H. — President Bush, visiting this likely battleground state one day after the Democratic presidential candidates packed up and headed for new electoral challenges, said Thursday that his policy of tax cuts had succeeded in coaxing the economy into recovery.
"It's working. It's working," Bush said of the tax cuts he championed. "The economy is growing. People are finding work. There's an excitement in our economy. The tax relief we passed made sense then, it makes sense now, and Congress needs to make this tax relief permanent."
He was referring to the expiration of many of the tax cuts by the end of the decade.
Answering months of criticism leveled by Democratic candidates during the New Hampshire presidential primary campaign, Bush said: "You can tell I'm upbeat, and I've got reason to be." He noted that economic growth in the third quarter of last year -- reported at 8.2% -- was "the highest in 20 years."
The government is due to report figures today for fourth-quarter economic growth. Bush won New Hampshire in the 2000 election -- but barely, beating Democrat Al Gore 48% to 47%, a 7,000-vote difference. Both Democrats and Republicans, mindful of the razor-thin margin of victory in 2000, are targeting New Hampshire as one of 17 states that could decide the 2004 election.Moreover, it is an axiom of politics that nature and voters abhor a vacuum. In the months before Tuesday's primary, Democrats campaigned intensely against Bush, often citing the 2.3 million jobs lost during his administration. Republican strategists have been eager to answer the charge.
"When the Democrats are in there trashing Bush, you can't let the poison of the Democratic candidates seep into the general election," said Rich Bond, former chairman of the Republican Party.
For local GOP stalwarts, the showing of the Republican flag is a relief.
"It was like seven shots over the hill and nothing coming back," said Scott Johnson, a farmer who grows vegetables and flowers on his family farm in nearby Windham. "We have a candidate too, and this is an opportunity to support our man."
The state carries four of the 538 votes in the Electoral College.
Four years ago, New Hampshire was basking in a robust, high-tech economy, with an unemployment rate of 2%.
Now, 20,000 manufacturing jobs are gone and unemployment is up to 4.1%, although that is still below the national average of 5.7%.
Bush spoke at the campus-like office park of Fidelity Investments here in Merrimack, outside Manchester. In a packed auditorium adorned with a huge American flag and a sign saying "Jobs for the 21st Century," he welcomed local entrepreneurs and said "the role of government is not to create wealth but to create the climate" for business owners to take risks
On other topics, Bush defended the war in Iraq, saying "a free and peaceful Iraq in the heart of the Middle East" will improve American security.
"I'm actually convinced it was the right thing to do," he said of the war, "and I look forward to explaining it to the American people." His comments came amid controversy over former chief arms inspector David Kay's declaration that Iraq probably had no recent stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.
Bush thanked the families of troops in Iraq, and singled out Sgt. Randy Rosenberg of Berlin, N.H., "who paid the ultimate price."
The president also said that controlling healthcare costs would contribute to continued economic vitality. He repeated previous calls for an expanded program of tax-advantaged savings accounts to help people save money for health costs. He urged the elimination of "junk lawsuits that raise the cost of medicine."The president also introduced several local citizens who talked of how Bush administration policies had improved their financial situation.
Louise Hickey, a senior executive secretary in Fidelity's payroll department, said the Bush tax cuts provided her family with $1,100, which she called "a significant amount of money." She also praised the repeal of what is often called the "marriage tax," saying that with her 40th anniversary upcoming, she wished the benefit could be retroactive.
Steve Marshall, a Fidelity manager, said the Bush tax cuts had allowed him to increase his contributions to his 401(k) fund and to afford to add an upstairs bathroom.
Bush jumped in to proclaim that Marshall had in effect increased the demand for goods and services, which he said "is important when times are slow."
"If you listen to the stories of what's happening in America, you get this sense of optimism and the can-do spirit and the willingness of people to invest and save, because they're confident about the country," he said.
On his way out of New Hampshire, Bush stopped at a specialty chocolate shop, noting that small businesses create 70% of the new jobs in the U.S. economy.
Looking and sounding like a candidate for reelection, Bush visited Swan Chocolates in Merrimack, run by a husband-and-wife team, Michael and Theresa Anderson. "They started their business last year, had a dream, living their dream and they're making good product," he said. "And I expect people in the national press corps to leave some cash behind."
Later Bush traveled to Greenwich, Conn., for a fundraiser, expected to raise $1.1 million. Pointedly not in attendance was the Republican governor of Connecticut, John G. Rowland, who is the focus of a fraud and corruption investigation.
Times Staff Writer Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.