Amid concern over jobs, Bush heads to New Hampshire

NASHUA – President Bush visited the heart of Kerry country Thursday to tell enthusiastic supporters on a shop-floor classroom that matching education to the needs of business is key to solving the nation’s employment problems.

“Community colleges have got the capacity to be flexible in their curriculum,” said the president, appearing in front of a ’92 Chevy pickup being repaired by students at New Hampshire Community Technical College. “Community colleges are able to say to local business, ‘What do you need?’ You can actually match people with the skills needed to work in the new jobs of the 21st century.”

Bush was trying to take the offensive on the jobs issue by highlighting his plans for retraining laid-off workers and accusing Democratic rival John Kerry of pushing higher taxes.

Bush’s “Jobs for the 21st Century” program would give $250 million in grants to community colleges that partner with employers looking for higher-skilled workers. Unveiled in Bush’s State of the Union speech, the proposal is part of a Bush plan to spend an additional $500 million on job training and education programs.

His appearance here follows a two-year span in which New Hampshire lost 17.8 percent of its manufacturing jobs, the greatest percentage decline for any state in the country, or about 18,000 jobs. Nationally, the economy has shed 2.3 million jobs during the Bush presidency.

Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is focusing on job losses under Bush’s watch in his campaign. He travels to Detroit on Friday to deliver what aides say will be a major speech on the subject.

New Hampshire was Bush’s only victory in 2000 in the Northeast, by a slim margin, and Thursday marks his sixth visit to the state.

Later Thursday, Bush headed to Boston is for a $2,000-per-person fund-raiser for a re-election campaign that has raised $170 million. A Boston fund-raiser by Vice President Dick Cheney brought in $1.2 million last June.

The trip coincided with the airing of a new television commercial that accuses Kerry of voting to increase taxes on Social Security benefits, opposing small business tax credits and supporting a 50-cent-a-gallon tax increase. Kerry has accused Bush of distorting the facts.

Kerry’s campaign says Bush’s job-training initiative is the latest installment in three years of empty promises from the president.

“Never has the Bush administration increased the resources going toward programs for people who have lost jobs and need retraining to find new ones,” said Kerry campaign spokeswoman Kathy Roeder. She said other areas of Bush’s budget proposal that relate to job training call for cuts, not increases.

The president listened to the story of Heather Limanek, who was laid off from her job as an assistant restaurant manager. But while in school, she opened a business providing entertainment for children’s birthday parties.

“I graduate in May and plan to expand the business,” said Limanek.

New Hampshire’s jobless rate was 4.1 percent in January, down from 4.9 percent a year and a half ago. The national unemployment rate was 5.6 percent in January.

“On one hand you could say New Hampshire’s job losses have been devastating, but on the other hand New Hampshire has done pretty well,” said Ross Gittell, a business professor at the Whittemore School of Business & Economics at the University of New Hampshire.

Gittell said unemployment is relatively low in New Hampshire because the high level of education among its residents has led many laid-off workers to start their own businesses. These workers have become entrepreneurs with assets built up during the good years of the mid- to late 1990s, and with home equity from a housing market that continues to be strong, he said.