- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2003

TAMPA, Fla., March 25 (UPI) — Republicans denied Tuesday that President Bush's trip to Tampa to rally the troops at MacDill Air Force base has any political motivation.

But there are skeptics who point out that although he could have chosen any of hundreds of bases, he chose one in the 2004 election's most valuable swing state.

"Everybody that's in politics thinks about partisan politics all the time," said Tom Slade, chairman of the Republican Party in Jacksonville and former state chairman.

"That doesn't mean (Gen.) Tommy Franks is thinking about politics, but I promise you that (White House political adviser) Karl Rove is," Slade said.

Tampa is the biggest media market in the state, and is located at one end of the I-4 corridor that many strategists believe is the key to winning Florida and its 27 electoral votes.

The visit to Florida will be Bush's 14th since becoming president in 2001, and will last about three hours.

During his first trip outside the Washington area since the war began, the president will address the military at MacDill Air Force Base and have lunch with military personnel there.

MacDill houses Central Command headquarters which oversees military operations in 25 countries and was the planning center for the campaign in Afghanistan.

It also ran the war in Iraq before Franks left for Qatar and began running the war from there.

Bush will be briefed on the war from Qatar via a television feed as well as by Central Command officers at MacDill.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer indicated the trip was strictly military in nature.

He said the president, in addition to getting a briefing, will meet with members of the coalition from around the world.

"I think you'll see a commander in chief who is sending a real signal of support for the men and women in the military," he said.

"We're just happy the president is coming here to recognize all the people at Central Command and their families, who are doing the heavy lifting," said Al Austin, a Tampa developer and GOP fundraiser.

He said he would be present at the base during the visit, but the trip has much more to do with the military than with politics.

Bush will also meet with his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, during the visit. Jeb Bush said he talked with his brother a couple of days ago.

"The burden as commander in chief of the loss of lives weighs on him heavily, but I think he's confident we're winning the war and, based upon our expectations were, that things are going well," the governor said.

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