Wednesday, August 18, 2004

CHIPPEWA FALLS, Wis. — President Bush yesterday proposed increasing benefits to members of the National Guard and reservists who have seen duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the first stop in a one-day, multicity campaign bus tour of the upper Midwest, Mr. Bush said he has raised the salaries of U.S. troops 21 percent since he took office in 2001, but the new proposal is necessary to help ease the transition and education costs of formerly part-time service members when they return to their families.

“These brave Americans put their jobs on hold and leave their family behind when we called,” Mr. Bush said. “Yet, under current rules, their education benefits don’t reflect the high value of service we place on their time and duty.

“We will continue to stand side by side with those who wear the uniform and the families of those who wear the uniform,” Mr. Bush said.

The president is counting on public perception of his handling of the war on terror to carry him to a second term, and this new proposal signals that Democratic charges that Mr. Bush has ignored the needs of veterans at home is getting traction.

Those in the Guard and reserves get less financial aid for education than those in the regular forces. Mr. Bush’s plan would equalize those benefits for any reservist or member of the National Guard who has been mobilized for service in the war for more than 90 days after September 11, 2001.

Mr. Bush also proposed spending $10 million to help the one in four military families a year that move to another base in the United States and to help “address the special needs of students of military personnel.”

The White House was not any more specific yesterday about how much the new benefits would cost or what they would entail.

Polls show that Wisconsin and its six electoral college votes are up for grabs this year. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won the state by just 5,708 votes out of nearly 1.5 million cast.

A Strategic Vision poll released yesterday showed the race tied, with 46 percent each for Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry and Mr. Bush with 2 percent supporting independent Ralph Nader.

The trend, however, has been moving in Mr. Bush’s favor for weeks. Mr. Kerry had a 9-point lead in the generally Democrat-leaning state in a Zogby Poll released in July.

Mr. Bush — who travels with two red, white and blue luxury buses and a motorcade of a dozen vehicles for staff, security and press — passed through small towns in this dairy state to a nearly unanimous friendly reception.

He uses his visits to the rural Midwest to stress what he considers the different values he holds from Mr. Kerry.

“My opponent thinks the heart and soul of America is in Hollywood,” Mr. Bush said at a factory in Chippewa Falls. “I think it’s in Wisconsin.”

At the “Ask President Bush” event in Hudson, near Wisconsin’s border with Minnesota, Mr. Bush was asked what he would do to promote the “culture of life” he has talked about on the campaign trail.

Mr. Bush pointed to his signing laws that ban partial-birth abortion and allow prosecutions for double murder if a pregnant woman is slain.

“Culture changes slowly,” Mr. Bush said. “It’s a very heartfelt debate … on the abortion issue. My attitude is that I’ll sign laws that change people’s perception of the culture of life and promote the culture of life.”

The president also stopped at a cheese factory near Wilson in the central part of the state and finished his day amid pandemonium at a packed St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, the 18,000-seat home arena of hockey’s Minnesota Wild.

Mr. Bush’s visit generated coverage in three swing states as he hopped off the bus at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, the training camp site of the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. Footage of his 10-minute visit shaking hands and tossing footballs with members of one of the sport’s highest-powered offensive teams was certain to make the local news in Missouri.

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