Bush Visits N.J., Talks About Iraq — Thursday, May 31, 2007


They hyped the president's visit to New Jersey for weeks – organizing rallies, seeking publicity and raising money.

And that was just the Democrats.

President Bush's appearance in Edison on Wednesday was expected to raise $675,000 for state Republicans as legislative races approach. But it also marked the finale of an extended Democratic celebration determined to make the commander in chief its "star detraction."

Democrats insisted that the unpopular president was bound to help them more than he would the GOP. But Bush did not shy away from the most controversial issue associated with him in his nearly half-hour speech at the fund-raiser, recapping his reasons for invading Iraq and refusing to relent on the occupation.

"We fight an enemy that is cruel, an enemy that murders the innocent," Bush told a crowd of about 700 at the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center. "The only way to deal with these people is to stay on offense and fight them overseas so we don't have to fight them here."

The latest Quinnipiac University poll showed that only one in four New Jerseyans approve of the president's performance. Some of the state's prominent Republican officials did not attend the event, but Bush urged those who did to ignore the surveys.

"If we govern based on what's right and not the latest Gallup poll, we will continue to lead this country," Bush said.

The president said he hoped Republican gains in this year's legislative elections would "lay the groundwork" for a GOP victory in next year's presidential contest. Democrats said the presidential visit would not further that goal.

"Anytime you associate George Bush with the other side ... it's good news for Democrats," said state Democratic Chairman Joe Cryan, who helped lead a protest rally about a mile from the fund-raiser in a sun-baked parking lot next to a Holiday Inn.

The state Senate's Republican leader, Leonard Lance, said later that the coming election would focus on fiscal responsibility and ethics in Trenton, not national issues.

"The New Jersey electorate this autumn will be voting on state issues," Lance said.

Republican supporters paid $300 a ticket to see Bush, or $5,000 to be photographed with him at an earlier, more intimate gathering. Most of the money will go to the state party organization.

Citing Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan, state Republican Chairman Tom Wilson welcomed Bush as another "Republican president who will not back down."

"It's good to be back in Jersey," Bush said with characteristic folksiness a few minutes later. Responding to a shout from the crowd, he added, "Last time I was in Jersey there was a lot of heckling as well – good heckling. I love you, too."

Bush was cognizant of his audience in other ways, too. He mentioned the 2001 terrorist attacks, which took a heavy toll in New Jersey, five times.

"The lesson of Sept. 11 is that we must confront threats," Bush said. While acknowledging the widespread discontent over the war – "I know a lot of people are deeply concerned about Iraq, and so am I" – he offered a vigorous defense of the troop surge.

All 120 seats in the state Legislature are up for election in November. Democrats, who control both houses as well as the governor's office, have a decisive financial advantage that will be diminished, but not overcome, by the Bush visit. The Democratic legislative leadership committees and state party organization had a total of about $4 million on hand as of April 15; their Republican counterparts had $1.35 million.

Wednesday's Democratic rally attracted about 200 protesters who sang, chanted and waved signs at passing traffic. Their slogans were fairly uncompromising, including, "Worst president ever," "Impeach the murdering liar" and "Hang Bush and Cheney after fair trial."

"My complaints against him would fill your book," said rally participant Paul Eisenman of Cliffside Park. "Up our way, it's very hard to find a pro-Bush person."

But at least one prominent Democrat was a bit restrained in his Bush-bashing Wednesday. Governor Corzine noted that the president had been kind enough to call and wish him a speedy recovery from his critical injuries in a car accident in April.

"He's been very nice the past couple of weeks," Corzine said during a State House press conference Wednesday morning. When asked about the president's visit, Corzine welcomed him to the state but took a partisan stance on campaign activities: "I hope he has a fine stay in the state. And I don't wish him well in his fund raising."

Trenton Correspondent Mitchel Maddux contributed to this article.