Bush visits southern Oregon

CENTRAL POINT, Ore. – Days before Oregonians begin marking ballots, President Bush exhorted thousands of cheering supporters in this southern Oregon community Thursday with a message of help for small businesses and a strong resolve to fight terrorism.

Campaign officials estimated more than 12,000 people attended the outdoor rally at the Jackson County fairgrounds.

Bush criticized Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry for supporting a health care plan that the president said would be a burden to small business and for voting against $87 billion in support for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The president pledged to help small businesses by keeping taxes low, eliminating frivolous malpractice lawsuits and improving college opportunities for workers.

“There’s an old saying that no one ever washes a rental car. When you own something, you care about it. Every time a small business is started, someone is achieving the American dream,” Bush said.

The crowd periodically rewarded Bush with shouts of “Four More Years.”

Bush said the most solemn duty of the president is to protect the American people, and he pledged not to allow the war on terror to “drift toward tragedy.”

“This will not happen on my watch,” he said. “We’re staying on the offensive, and we’re striking against terrorism abroad so we do not have to fight them at home.”

Bush was introduced to the crowd by Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Bush spoke here one day before Oregon officials begin sending mail ballots to voters. Oregon is the only state in the nation that has done away with polling booths, conducting elections exclusively by mail.

Jackson County Republican Chairman Bryan Platt said he thought it was a good strategy for Bush to campaign in traditionally conservative southern Oregon, rather than going to the more populous areas of Portland and Eugene, where Democrats are stronger.

Three Medford school teachers were threatened with arrest and escorted from the event after they showed up wearing T-shirts with the slogan “Protect our civil liberties.” All three said they applied for and received valid tickets from Republican headquarters in Medford.

The women said they did not intend to protest. “I wanted to see if I would be able to make a statement that I feel is important, but not offensive, in a rally for my president,” said Janet Voorhies, 48, a teacher in training.

“We chose this phrase specifically because we didn’t think it would be offensive or degrading or obscene,” said Tania Tong, 34, a special education teacher.

A new poll indicates that Jackson County, the most populous county in southern Oregon, is almost evenly divided between Kerry and Bush despite a history of voting Republican. On Wednesday, the county was one of three stops by Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards, who also addressed crowds in Eugene and Portland.