President Bush touts new energy policy to help manufacturers

By CONNIE MABIN, Associated Press Writer

RICHFIELD, Ohio (AP) - President Bush's announcement that he's creating a high-level government job to help the manufacturing industry was welcomed with cautious optimism in Ohio, an important state to Bush's re-election and one hit hard by the loss of jobs.

"I would like to hear more details about his manufacturing policy," said crane operator Ken McGlashan, 40. "I want to see some action."

Dennis Stevenson of Lima also wants to see results.

"I think the economy is better now than it was 6 months ago," he said. "But I would like to hear about more jobs coming to America."

The men were among the hundreds who braved chilly temperatures and a constant rain Monday to spend Labor Day with the president in this Republican-leaning town tucked between the Democratic strongholds in Akron and Cleveland.

At the International Union of Operating Engineers facility, Bush said he had directed Commerce Secretary Don Evans to establish an assistant position to focus "on the needs of manufacturers."

Keeping factory jobs is critical to a broader economic recovery, the president said, his outdoor venue ringed by cranes, backhoes and bulldozers.

The union represents 400,000 construction and maintenance workers in the United States and Canada.

"I want you to understand that I understand that Ohio manufacturers are hurting, that there's a problem with the manufacturing sector," Bush said. "I believe there are better days ahead for people who are working and looking for work."

Of the 2.7 million jobs the U.S. economy has lost since the recession began in early 2001, 2.4 million were in manufacturing. The downturn has eliminated more than one in 10 of the nation's factory jobs.

Ohio has been especially hard hit, losing 185,000 jobs during the recession from 2001 through last March, nearly two-thirds in manufacturing, according to a study released Sunday by a private economic think tank.

Ronald McComas, 52, of Fremont, said he disagreed with the administration's plan to do away with overtime in favor of time off for some workers.

"We're going to fight to keep that," said McComas, a 32-year member of the union. "We'll be watching the president on that."

Labor Day marks the traditional start of campaign season and electoral vote rich Ohio is an important state. This was the president's 11th visit to Ohio since taking office. Bush received 50 percent of the vote in the state in 2000, only 3.5 percentage points more than Democrat Al Gore.

"It really is a tossup," said Melanie Blumberg, a political science professor at California University of Pennsylvania. "I don't think that either side can write it off."

Republicans are preparing for another close race and used the event to launch a revamped grass-roots campaign program for 2004. Democrats say they plan to work just as hard, blaming the job troubles on Bush's policies.

In Richfield, supporters holding signs stood along the motorcade route, while about 400 AFL-CIO members and Democrats protested Bush's visit, criticizing his economic policy.

"I hope his tour of the state will include the empty factories and bankrupt corporations," said Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, one of nine Democrats vying to challenge Bush.

Bush also used the Ohio visit to call on Congress to quickly get an energy bill to his desk. The president has said he wants reliability standards in the bill and incentives to companies that improve their infrastructure.

As rain poured, Bush told the Labor Day crowd that a new national energy policy would help protect its sagging manufacturing base.

Last month's blackout that left 50 million Americans in Ohio and seven other states and Canada in the dark provides an opportunity to modernize the aging electricity grid, Bush said.

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