- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2003

EL CAJON, Calif. — President Bush yesterday toured wildfire devastation just days after his campaign manager met with strategists for the Republican governor-elect to plot a presidential victory in this vote-rich state.

The president’s 10th visit to California came less than a month after 62 percent of the predominately Democratic state voted for one of two Republicans to be governor. That has given the Bush campaign hope that the president could win California’s 55 electoral votes next year, virtually guaranteeing his re-election.

“Anybody who says California is impossible or out of play is wrong,” Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said recently.

Last week, Mr. Mehlman was in California to meet with Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger’s political strategists, hoping to capitalize on the recall of outgoing Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

Mr. Bush lost California to Vice President Al Gore in 2000 by a margin of 54 percent to 42 percent. But Republicans believe the vote would have been much closer if TV networks had not prematurely and erroneously declared Mr. Gore the winner in Florida, thereby depressing Republican turnout on the West Coast.

Although Mr. Bush did not discuss politics yesterday, he was joined on his tour of wildfire devastation by Mr. Schwarzenegger and Mr. Davis. After the tour, he was asked by reporters about mounting U.S. casualties in Iraq.

“We are vulnerable to attack,” he said. “There are people that hate us and there are people who are willing to take thousands of lives in acts of tremendous violence.

“And the United States must understand that and adjust to the new realities,” he said. “Part of that reality is defeating terrorism and defeating the terrorists.”

The president expressed sympathy for the families of 15 U.S. soldiers who died when their helicopter was shot down in Iraq last weekend.

“I’m saddened, because I know a family hurts and there’s a deep pain in somebody’s heart,” he said. “But I do want to remind the loved ones that their sons and daughters … died for a cause greater than themselves and a noble cause, which is the security of the United States.”

Mr. Bush seemed to blame the attacks on Saddam Hussein, whom military officials say is still in Iraq.

“Oh, I’m sure he’s trying to stir up trouble,” he said. “All I can tell you is he’s not running Iraq. And all I can tell you as well, there’s some people who are upset by the fact that he’s no longer in power.”

Mr. Bush said he looked forward to signing a bill today that will appropriate $87.5 billion for military operations and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It is a commitment by our government and our country to help the Iraqis rebuild their society,” he said. “Years from now, people will sit back and say: Thank goodness America stayed the course and did what was necessary to win this battle in the war on terror.”

The president’s remarks came after he toured wildfire carnage by helicopter and on foot. The odor of smoke permeated Marine One as the helicopter gave Mr. Bush a bird’s-eye view of some of the hardest-hit communities: Scripps Ranch, Ramona, Barona and Crest.

After Marine One landed, he walked through Harbison Canyon, about 20 miles east of San Diego. He stopped to comfort residents in the driveways of their burned-out homes, some of which consisted of little more than a chimney and concrete steps leading to nowhere.

“I see human tragedy and heartache,” the president said. “I see the loss of a lot of material possessions.

“However, I see a strong spirit which exists here. I see people who are resolved to rebuild their lives. Amidst their tears, they do see hope. And that is a great tribute to the people in this part of California.

“The worst of nature can bring out the best in our fellow human beings.”

After thanking firefighters for their efforts, Mr. Bush returned to the White House for the first time in a week, ending an extended stay at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. In addition to signing the $87.5 billion appropriations bill, the president also plans today to sign a bill banning partial-birth abortion.

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