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Bush defends Iraq war in W.Va. visit

To applause, he calls freedom 'Almighty's gift'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- President Bush returned to the Mountain State to celebrate Independence Day, telling a spirited crowd yesterday that on its 228th birthday the nation is "moving forward with confidence and strength."

The president's 24-minute speech under the golden dome of the state Capitol focused heavily on the war on terrorism and the administration's push for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. He repeatedly praised US troops' efforts to secure those countries, which he said were necessary to America's security.

"On this Fourth of July, we confirm our love of freedom," Bush said. "But we also understand that freedom is not America's gift to the world; freedom is the Almighty God's gift to each man and woman in this world.

"And by serving that ideal, by never forgetting the values and the principles that have made this country so strong 228 years after our founding, we will bring hope to others and, at the same time, make America more secure," he said to loud applause.

Two years ago, in the first Independence Day observance after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Bush visited Ripley, W.Va. Although West Virginia has five electoral votes, it is considered a swing state in this fall's presidential election, and yesterday's visit was Bush's third since April.

He carried West Virginia in 2000 by six percentage points, but job losses by steelworkers, which some attribute to Bush's decision to lift tariffs on imported steel two years ago, have cost him support. As Bush's motorcade approached the Capitol, dozens of supporters of Democratic challenger John F. Kerry lined the streets, waving campaign posters.

The crowd of several thousand that greeted Bush in the hot, thick air -- paramedics scrambled to rescue a few people who passed out -- enthusiastically chanted, "Four more years!" and wildly waved tiny replicas of Old Glory as he took the stage on the steps of the Capitol shortly before 1 p.m. They especially cheered when Bush spoke of America's resolve to stare down terrorists.

"We made a decision, you see: We will engage these enemies in these countries and around the world so we do not have to face them here at home," Bush said, drawing applause, and prompting the audience to join in his speech.

"You can't talk sense to them," Bush said, referring to terrorists.

"Nooooo!" the audience roared.

"You can't negotiate with them."

"Nooooo!"

"We must be relentless and determined to do our duty," he concluded to sustained applause.

Bush's visit to Charleston was cut short by a mechanical glitch with Air Force One. The plane was flown to Hagerstown, Md., to pick up the president at nearby Camp David. But after Bush arrived about 9:45 a.m., the crew discovered a malfunctioning starter valve in the left engine. Bush waited an hour until a backup plane arrived. He did not leave Hagerstown until 11, when he was to have been at the Bible Center's morning services.

Bush said at the Capitol that he had assured the church's pastor, Shawn Thornton, "that I was looking forward to his sermon. . . . I missed it because the plane broke down." The audience laughed.

After Bush's speech, Bill Greaver, 51, an operating-room nurse who works for the Veterans Affairs Department, said he agrees the United States has a duty to help the Iraqi people.

Buck Flynn, a retired Verizon Communications worker who lives in Charleston, said Bush gave a "good speech, and I think he's done well. It's a tough job."

But Flynn, 66, a Democrat, said he probably will vote for Kerry. "I think he will take the country in a different direction, and I think the economy will be better under the Democrats," he said.

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