Monday, February 16, 2004

TAMPA, Fla. — President Bush swept into the state that decided the 2000 presidential election by a razor-thin majority to talk about the economy with Hispanics, the voting bloc that many campaign strategists say might decide this year’s presidential race.

“The tax relief was a vital part of this economic recovery,” the president said in an informal round table with workers at a window and door manufacturing plant, which employs a significant number of Hispanics. “I say ‘recovery’ because the facts bear me out.”

Mr. Bush cited a slew of reports that drove the stock market to a 21/2-year high when Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan ticked off the same set of indicators in an assessment of the economy last week.

“The last six months of growth have been tremendous. Housing starts are way up. Inflation is low. Interest is low. New jobs are being created. … Things are looking better for America,” he said.

Mr. Greenspan has called the expansion “vigorous” and White House predictions for the creation of 2.6 million jobs this year “feasible” and “most likely.”

Democrats continue to criticize the president for the greatest loss of jobs under any administration since Herbert Hoover’s. Since Mr. Bush took office in 2001, the nation has lost about 2.3 million jobs, mostly in manufacturing.

The economic recovery has come in fits and starts. In the third quarter of 2003, just 1,000 jobs were created, but the fourth quarter produced more than 100,000 new jobs.

“We don’t need a president who just says, ‘Gentlemen, start your engines,’” said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. The Democratic presidential front-runner was referring to Mr. Bush’s stop Sunday at NASCAR’s Daytona 500 race.

“We need a president who says, ‘America, let’s start the economy and put people back to work.’ This is not a time for photo opportunities,” Mr. Kerry said at a Wisconsin town hall meeting.

In his 19th visit to the state that decided the 2000 election — with a 537-vote margin — Mr. Bush targeted Hispanics, who make up 17 percent of Florida’s population of 17 million. Sitting on a stage with a half-dozen workers, the president referred to one worker whose family saved $2,400 last year through the increased child tax credit, relief of the marriage penalty, and the new 10 percent income tax bracket.

“You know, that may not sound a lot to some people in Washington, $2,400. They throw a lot of numbers around in Washington. That’s a lot to her. That’s a lot of money to a lot of people.”

But Mr. Bush said Democrats’ plans to allow the phaseout of the tax cuts would strip away relief.

When people say not to make the cuts permanent, “they are saying we’re going to tax you, we’re going to raise your taxes,” he said. “I’m telling you, now is not the time to raise taxes on the American people.”

The president contradicted Democrats’ charges that the tax cuts have damaged the economy, saying the sense of optimism sweeping the country is undeniable.

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