Bush rallies Republicans in Tri-Cities
Tennessee remains 'fond spot' in president's heart

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   BLOUNTVILLE -- President George W. Bush returned to Northeast Tennessee Saturday morning touting Tennessee's Republican ticket and reiterating his stance that the U.S. would disarm Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein if he refused to submit to U.N. weapons inspectors.
   "I've got a fond spot in my heart for Tennessee, if you know what I mean," Bush told a raucous crowd of approximately 7,000 GOP supporters who braved a frigid morning at Tri-Cities Regional Airport for the president's visit.
   Joining the president on stage were Sens. Bill Frist and Fred Thompson as well as 1st District Congressman Bill Jenkins, U.S. Senate candidate Lamar Alexander and gubernatorial candidate Van Hilleary. Former NASCAR Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip emceed the rally that drew an estimated 7,000 GOP supporters.
   Also on hand was Joann Bowling who is running as Republican nominee for the 4th District House seat Hilleary vacated to make his gubernatorial run.
   Polls show Hilleary in a virtual dead heat with Democratic nominee Phil Bredesen for the state House. Bush said he looked forward to working with Hilleary on education and welfare reform issues.
   Bush said he was traveling the country reminding Republicans and Democrats and people who "don't give a hoot about politics" to go to the polls.
   "I've got some suggestions once they get in the box," Bush said. "For the good of Tennessee, for the good of taxpayers and the good of schoolchildren in Tennessee, vote Van Hilleary for governor."
   Alexander is facing off against 7th District Congressman Bob Clement for the seat being vacated by Thompson who is retiring. The Democrats hold a one-vote majority in the Senate -- a sticking point for Republicans, particularly in what some party members feel is holding up the confirmation of several Bush nominees to the federal bench.
   Bush told the crowd there was a "vacancy problem" in the nation's federal courts because nominated judges could not get through the Senate. A problem he blamed on politics of Democratic senators.
   "They don't like the fact that I'm naming good, honorable, decent people who will not use the bench from which to legislate, but from which to interpret the United States Constitution," he said.
   The Senate confirmed Bush's nomination of Samuel Hardwicke Mays as U.S. District Court judge in West Tennessee in May. Mays was nominated in January.
   Bush judicial nominees Thomas W. Phillips and Thomas Alexander Varlan for the East Tennessee District of U.S. District Court judges have yet to be confirmed by the Senate as does John Daniel Breen, a nominee for the U.S. District Court judge in West Tennessee.
   Phillips was nominated in June. Breen and Varlan were nominated last month.
   Bush spoke on a variety of issues from public education and the modernization of Medicare to the nation's ongoing war on terrorism. He called for prescription drug coverage to be extended to Medicare recipients.
   He also reiterated a hard-line stance against Saddam Hussein and his regime's unwillingness to allow United Nations' weapons inspectors access to search for weapons of mass destruction.
   "He can get rid of his weapons of mass destruction," said Bush of Hussein. "But if the United Nations won't act, and if Saddam Hussein won't disarm, this country, in the name of peace and in the name of freedom, will lead a coalition to disarm Saddam Hussein."
   Bush carried Tennessee in the 2000 presidential election over Tennessee native son Al Gore. A feat made possible by a healthy turnout of voters from traditionally Republican East Tennessee.
   The president briefly met with the family of Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis following his speech. A native of Carter County and an Elizabethton High School graduate, Davis was a Special Forces solider killed in December when a B-52 accidentally dropped a bomb too close to American forces.
   The president also vowed that the nation's fight to halt terrorism around the globe would not be derailed and that the nation's spirit was "alive and well."
   "It's the spirit which says, when it comes to the defense of our country, we'll be plenty tough," he said. "But the spirit also says that a patriot is somebody who is willing to serve something greater than themselves."
   The president's return visit to the Tri-Cities two years after campaigning as Republican candidate himself made an impression on rally attendees.
   "On a scale of one to 10, I'd give it a 15," said Jay Nidiffer, manager of the Hilleary campaign in Carter County. "It makes you glad to see someone who can connect with the people the way he can."