- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2003

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The White House yesterday shrugged off increasingly sharp criticism from Democratic presidential candidates, chalking it up to politics even as other Republicans branded it “hate speech.”

“There’s a lot of talk about politics these days,” said Mr. Bush at the first of two Florida fund-raisers for his re-election campaign. “And I’m loosening up. I’m getting ready.

“The truth of the matter is, the political season will come in its own time,” he added. “I’ve got a job to do. I’ve got to do the people’s work, the people’s business.”

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan agreed.

“We recognize there’s a Democratic primary going on,” he said in response to questions from The Washington Times aboard Air Force One. “That’s politics.”

During a Democratic presidential debate last week, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt repeatedly denounced the president as a “miserable failure.”

Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said this and other broadsides by Democratic candidates bordered on “hate speech.”

But the White House is trying to remain above the fray for as long as possible to keep Mr. Bush looking presidential. Mr. McClellan even demurred from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s assertion that criticism of the president is giving comfort to America’s enemies.

“Debate is healthy and welcome,” Mr. McClellan said. “He suggested that military inaction, not domestic criticism, emboldens terrorists.

“Terrorism is encouraged in the face of weakness,” the presidential spokesman said. “Terrorism is defeated through strength and going on the offensive.”

He added: “That is why we are on the offensive.”

But the White House refrained from going on the offensive against Democrats who have called for Mr. Rumsfeld’s resignation. Mr. McClellan contented himself with proclaiming the president’s confidence in the defense secretary.

“Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a terrific job,” he said. “He shares the president’s strong commitment to confronting the new threats we face before they reach our shores.”

The president did not mention his Democratic detractors during the fund-raisers in Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which netted $2.8 million for his re-election campaign. But he made clear he intends to vanquish the political opposition.

“Today, we’re laying the groundwork for what is going to be a great national victory in November of 2004,” he said to thunderous applause in Jacksonville.

When The Times reminded Mr. McClellan that attacks against the president would likely be reprised at another Democratic debate scheduled for last night, the spokesman declined to pre-empt such criticism.

Air Force One aborted its initial landing attempt at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station, pulling up just seconds before the 747 was supposed to touch down at 11:14 a.m. The station’s control tower waved the plane off when it noticed a police car on a road near the runway.

It turned out the car was there to lead the presidential motorcade to the first fund-raiser. Air Force One circled around and made another approach, landing safely at 11:17 a.m.

After the fund-raiser, as Mr. Bush was being driven to an elementary school, he passed a motorist being held at gunpoint by police on the side of Interstate 10. Authorities explained that the man was accosted driving east in the westbound lanes after being diverted by a roadblock.

As the president passed, the motorist sat in the driver’s seat of his black Chevy Suburban with his hands splayed against the inside of the windshield. A Jacksonville police officer stood outside the driver’s window, pointing a gun with outstretched arms at the motorist.

A Florida state trooper, meanwhile, crouched defensively near the Suburban’s bumper, facing the motorcade. Aides said the president was not in danger.

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