Bush draws record crowd
From wire reports
POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. -- A crowd of nearly twice the population of Poplar Bluff gave an enthusiastic welcome to President George W. Bush in Ray Clinton Park on Monday.
The event, which drew between 26,000 and 30,000 people, turned out to be one that drew the largest crowd the president has seen in this campaign. Bush made the Southeast Missouri stop after a signature petition asked him to visit the city.
"I get a lot of invitations," Bush said. "I've never gotten one with 10,000 signatures on it."
After arriving by helicopter, the president took the podium for a 45-minute speech that covered the economy, small business, taxes, the war on terror and Democratic rival John Kerry's views on the issues.
Bush cheered the dip last month in the nation's unemployment rate to 5.4 percent.
"This economy -- because of our tax relief and because we have great people in this country who refuse to be intimidated, who believe in the future -- is strong and is getting stronger," Bush said.
An estimated 8 million Americans remain out of work this Labor Day and the job market remains a political vulnerability for the president, especially in hard-hit states like Missouri.
Democrat John Kerry, whose Labor Day schedule included stops in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, argued the recovery is the weakest on record for job creation and those new jobs pay less and offer fewer benefits.
But the two candidates spent much of the day sparring on Iraq.
Toppling Saddam Hussein was "right for America," Bush said, rebutting Kerry's claim that involvement in Iraq has left the United States with a heavy burden of casualties and a bundle of bills.
Kerry, on his own Labor Day tour of Midwestern states, Kerry faulted Bush on almost every aspect of his move toward war in Iraq. He told voters that, if elected, he would try to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq before his first term was over.
"This president rushed to war without a plan to win the peace, and he's cost all of you $200 billion that could have gone to schools, could have gone to health care, could have gone to prescription drugs, could have gone to our Social Security," Kerry said in Canonsburg, Pa.
Nationally, Bush led Kerry by 7 points -- 52 percent to 45 percent -- while independent Ralph Nader had 1 percent in a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll taken over the weekend and released Monday. Bush had 11-point leads in two polls taken last week during and right after the GOP convention.
During his stop in Poplar Bluff, the president also reiterated his pledge to work toward simplifying the tax code in his second term. He said he would lead a bipartisan team to simplify the tax code, which he called "a complicated mess."
A light rain fell throughout most of Bush's speech. A few people tried to shield themselves with political signs but most, apparently taking cue from the president, pretended not to notice.
After his speech, Bush spent about 20 minutes shaking hands as he walked the entire east perimeter of the gates to meet supporters.
Just before he left, the president made a quick stop to shake 17-year-old Kristi Freeman's hand.
"It was awesome!" she screamed. "He just smiled really big."
Bush planned to campaign again today in Missouri.
Mandy Phillips of the Daily American Republic contributed to this report.