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Bush Visits Returning Troops, Defense Contractor

Bush Visits Returning Troops, Defense Contractor

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ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN (AP) -- After declaring the Iraq war's heaviest combat over, President Bush is aiming to keep the nation firmly focused on national security even as he makes a feel-your-pain swing through the recession-plagued Silicon Valley.

Bush had breakfast with officers on the USS Abraham Lincoln just off San Diego on Friday morning, then traveled to Northern California, where opposition to his policies, particularly on the war, runs high. Silicon Valley is on the southern fringe of the San Francisco bay area, the heart of the West's anti-war movement.

The aircraft carrier moved steadily through the night off the coast of California. A ship spokesman said it is more efficient to keep the ship moving than it is to anchor.

Bush rose early and walked to the carrier's deck at 5:55 a.m. PDT. "He looked around and took in the scene," said spokesman Ari Fleischer. After his breakfast with the officers, Bush flew by helicopter to Naval Air Station North Island, where he walked in a line of well-wishers and shook hands with members of the military and their families.

Bush will steer clear of San Francisco, where hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the street during the war. He's instead visiting friendlier territory: United Defense Industries, developer of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, in Santa Clara, Calif. The fast, high-tech troop transporters were heavily used in Iraq.

The visit followed a formula the president has developed in the period following the war and the run-up to his re-election campaign: He uses a defense contractor as the setting for a speech that bridges the seemingly disparate themes of the economy and national security.

Last month he did the same thing at a Boeing plant in St. Louis and at a tank manufacturer in Lima, Ohio.

Some of Bush's fellow Republicans have said Bush is shifting gears to focus more intensely on rehabilitating the economy. But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer dismissed talk of such a "pivot," saying both issues are top priorities for Bush.

"The war on terror remains an important national priority to protect our country and protect our people," Fleischer said. "Economic security is also at the heart and soul of what he is working on."

Bush was picking up Australian Prime Minister John Howard in Northern California and ferrying him back to Bush's central Texas ranch for a weekend summit. It was a highly visible thank-you gesture to a faithful ally in the Iraq war. In contrast, Bush scrubbed a visit planned for Monday with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who questioned Bush's path on Iraq.

Instead of meeting with Chretien, Bush was making a quick pass Monday through Arkansas, a state he only narrowly won in the 2000 election.

Bush lost California, the state with the most electoral votes, in 2000. He has visited five times as president, most recently in August. California Republicans have pleaded for more appearances, insisting Bush can compete vigorously for the state next year. Some White House officials privately say Bush cannot capture California, though.

Thursday, off the California coast, Bush reveled in a fervently supportive crowd. Thousands of sailors greeted the commander in chief enthusiastically, their mood ebullient as they approached land after a nearly 10-month deployment.

Bush rode shotgun aboard a Viking refueling plane to the carrier about 30 miles offshore. He took the controls for a third of the flight, keeping the aircraft pointed straight ahead. "I miss flying, I can tell you that," he told reporters.

Bush roamed the deck as dozens of fighters took off on their last flights of the deployment. The carrier shuddered with each launch, and a furnace-like blast of hot air swept across the deck. A great cheer went up from the crew after the last jet had taken off -- a celebration of a 100,000-mile journey nearing completion.

Bush, too, seemed to savor the moment.

In the minutes before the speech, he stood on deck alone, one hand on the rail, absorbing the vista of the Southern California coast.

The sailors' journey was a little longer due to Bush's trip: The carrier slowed down so that Bush could spend the night on board before it docked Friday.

But they seemed grateful for Bush's appearance. Their loudest applause came when Bush said, "Americans, following a battle, want nothing more than to return home. That is your direction tonight."

"Being stuck at sea for 91/2 months, you start to wonder what's going on in the heads of the people above you," said Petty Ofcr. 2nd Class Richard Modicus. "This shows we're not forgotten."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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