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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
September 27, 2004

Press Gaggle by Scott McClellan
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio

11:56 A.M. EDT

MR. McCLELLAN: All right, good morning. The President had his usual briefings at the ranch this morning. He also received a further update on I guess now Tropical Storm Jeanne and its impact on Florida. Yesterday -- I think some people are aware of this -- he spoke with FEMA Director Mike Brown and received an update from him on the response and recovery efforts. And he also spoke with Governor Bush to get an update from his perspective.

When we land, we have a -- the first event will be a "Focus on Education with President Bush." The four participants will include a superintendent, the Ohio Teacher of the Year, a parent of a special ed student and a business leader who is a member of the Ohio Business Roundtable.

And then this afternoon, following that, he'll make remarks at a Victory 2004 rally. And we will return to Crawford for the evening. And that's all I've got.

Q The topic for today, the first speech, is there anything new in the speech?

MR. McCLELLAN: He'll be talking about No Child Left Behind. This is a conversation. He'll be talking about how the No Child Left Behind reforms that we passed are working to improve our public schools. I mean, Ohio is an example where I think over -- in the last year, they've seen an 8 percent increase in the number of schools meeting the adequate yearly progress threshold. And so more schools are performing better.

Q Anything new on Iraq in the speech?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you'll be there to cover it. Like I said, it's a conversation, so I suspect he will talk some about the war on terrorism, on Iraq. Maybe he'll touch on the debates, as well, or the upcoming debate.

Q Can you clarify whether Karl Rove knew in advance about the phone ads? The President was --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, he didn't.

Q No, he didn't.

MR. McCLELLAN: We've already said that, yes.

Q Well, the President was noncommittal in the Fox interview.

MR. McCLELLAN: I didn't look at it quite that way. We checked into that a long time ago, all those issues, and we've already previously made clear there was absolutely zero coordination.

Q The New York Times has a story this morning about possibly continuing the length of combat duties for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Is he considering doing that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, first of all, I mean, I think that was talking about things the Pentagon and the Army are looking at. Our commanders and military leaders will do what is necessary to make sure we win the war on terrorism. And so one of the issues that they take into careful consideration is the deployment of our troops. And certainly our troops are making tremendous sacrifices in the war on terrorism. We remain a nation at war. Their families are making tremendous sacrifices. And so these are always things that our military leaders are looking at.

Q Would the President like to see more troops on the ground in January than the 135,000 now?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think you heard from our commander of the region, General Abizaid, about that very issue. And we've always said that we will make sure that our troops have all the resources they need, and we will look to our commanders in the field and our military leaders to make the determinations about what levels of troops are needed to meet our commitments and complete the mission. There has not been any request for additional troops. The military leaders have told us that they have what they need at this point. But that's something that we always look to the commanders on the ground and our military leaders to determine.

Q It's still not clear what the administration's stand is on whether elections that are partial in Iraq would count as elections that could go forward in January. If not --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, that's -- I mean, I think everybody -- Prime Minister Allawi has made it clear that he wanted elections where all Iraqis could participate and it would be for all of Iraq. We are committed to free and fair elections throughout Iraq. We want all Iraqis to be able to participate in the election. And that's what we're all working toward.

Q But what if it's not possible?

MR. McCLELLAN: That's what we're all working toward, as Prime Minister Allawi reiterated over the weekend again, free and fair elections throughout Iraq. For the first time, the Iraqi people are determining their future, and for the first time, the Iraqi people are moving toward free elections. And we will stand with them every step of the way.

Q It seemed as if Secretary Powell kind of contradicted the President in saying that things were getting worse there, when of course the President has been saying all along that things are --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think he's said exactly what we've been saying for quite some time. Secretary Powell was talking about an increase in violence associated with efforts to disrupt the election process. And we have, for a long time, said that we expect an uptick in violence as we move closer to elections. The terrorists recognize how high the stakes are in Iraq. They want to shake our will, but they cannot. They will be defeated. They recognize that we are approaching a decisive moment in Iraq, and that is the -- that is free and fair elections by the end of January.

And we are working very closely, as partners with the interim government in Iraq, to address the ongoing security threats. It's hard work transitioning to democracy. And there remain difficulties along the path to democracy and peace in Iraq. But we are there to support the Iraqi people every step of the way.

Q So he wasn't off message?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, he said what we've said for a long time. He was talking about it in association with the elections.

Q As we boarded the plane this morning, oil prices were nearing $50 a barrel. Is the administration concerned about this, and could there be any more requests to release oil from the SPR for --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the Department of Energy said there may be other requests from those who are refiners. I mean, they've talked about some loans that they will be providing.

Q This is in addition --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think the Department of Energy, over the weekend, said they didn't rule out additional requests may be coming to them. But I don't have any update on that. I mean, obviously it's always something we keep a close eye on, in terms of the price. But if you're talking about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, that should not be used to manipulate prices or for political purposes. It's for national emergencies or physical disruptions in the supply.

And that's all the more reason that -- a subject you bring up -- it's all the more reason why we need a national energy plan. And Senator Kerry has been one of the leaders in the Senate who has blocked our plans for a comprehensive national energy strategy that will lead to energy self-sufficiency here at home.

Q But if it hits $50 a barrel, that's an all-time high and a psychological point --

MR. McCLELLAN: I'm sure you'll ask me about it if it does.

Q Does it raise concerns about the economy, that it's getting so close to that level?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I mean, the economy continues to move forward because of the actions this President has taken. Obviously, there are things that can have an impact on it and you keep an eye on those issues, like rising oil prices. They have come down recently; they've gone back up a little bit more recently. But it's something we always keep an eye on.

But the economy continues to move forward and it's continuing to grow because of the actions that we took. And this President will continue to act to create an even more robust environment for job growth. That's why passing a comprehensive energy plan is one of his highest priorities, along with the other six points of his plan for strengthening our economy.

Q So can we expect him to be testing out any new -- any debate themes today at all?

MR. McCLELLAN: Can you expect? No, I think what you -- you may hear him talk a little bit about the debate since it's coming up on Thursday. But in terms of new themes, you all keep a close eye on things. I'm not going to get into any of that.

Q How are the debate preparation sessions going? Are you in on them? Are you --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, he had one Saturday night that lasted a couple of hours. And then more of a working session yesterday where they went through some questions. The President knows he's going up against the most skilled debater he has ever faced. Senator Kerry has been preparing -- preparing and practicing for this all his life, from the time he was in prep school to being a star debater for his Ivy League school, to being a prosecutor, to spending 20 years on the floor of the Senate debating the issues. And I expect the President will do fine but he's up against a very formidable debater.

Q Are these all-day prep sessions or is he still getting out around the ranch, doing --

MR. McCLELLAN: No, he did some mountain bike riding. He tends to get in fishing when he's there on a -- pretty much a daily basis. But he's also been tending to official business, particularly focused on Hurricane Jeanne and the devastation that it has left, the fourth hurricane to hit Florida. So our thoughts and prayers remain with the people of Florida during this difficult period that they've been through. And we'll continue to work to make sure that all -- that we're doing everything we can at the federal level to coordinate the response and recovery efforts.

Q Are you going to work in a disaster stop in Florida on Wednesday --

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we'll keep you posted. We'll keep you posted.

Q It looks like there's room in the schedule for it.

MR. McCLELLAN: We may well, but there's nothing to update at this point.

Q You can't say what we're doing tomorrow yet?

MR. McCLELLAN: Tomorrow he's in Crawford. We're not traveling tomorrow.

Q I mean, Wednesday?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we do go to Miami that night, and I said that there may well be a stop along the way. So there's nothing to update on the schedule at this point.

Q We're going to a pretty Republican part of Ohio. Are there any kind of shifts going on there, anything developing that you all are paying particular attention to right now?

MR. McCLELLAN: In terms of?

Q Just the campaign --

MR. McCLELLAN: I mean, the President is fighting hard to win Ohio, and recent polls have indicated growing support for the President's campaign, but we're taking nothing for granted. We expect not only will the election be close nationally, it will be close in Ohio and I expect the President will not only talk about education but talk about the economic situation in Ohio as well. Ohio is an area that has continued to face some difficult challenges as we work our way out of the recession and the September 11th attacks that occurred, and it cost a lot of jobs in its aftermath.

The economy is moving forward, but in Ohio -- but in Ohio there is still more to do, and it's an area where manufacturing jobs have been lost as well. And the President, I expect, will talk about how we're in a changing economy and we need to make sure that workers have the skills they need for the 21st century to fill the high-paying, high-skill jobs that are available. And education is key to future economic growth.

Q Former President Carter has been raising concerns about the voting in this country and problems with that. Does the White House share concerns about that?

MR. McCLELLAN: Share concerns about what, specifically? I haven't seen exactly what he said.

Q About problems with voting, the mechanics of voting.

MR. McCLELLAN: That's always -- I mean, that's always a high priority for anyone who is in office, to make sure that we have the best possible election process.

Q But are you confident in the process this year?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I mean, the election -- I think Virginia has maybe started voting. I think they're the only state that I think has started this early with some early voting --

Q No, no, no. Are you confident that the infrastructure is in place, that everything will be fair --

MR. McCLELLAN: You're talking state by state. Each state has different systems in place.

Q But he raised some broad concerns about the system.

MR. McCLELLAN: No, like I said, I haven't seen exactly what he said. Maybe I'll take a look at it. But, yes, we are confident about the election process in this country.

Q There has been some talk today in the networks about how the rules for these debates this year are so much more circumspect than past years. Are there any restrictions that the President regrets? Does he wish he could come out from behind the podium or --

MR. McCLELLAN: These were issues that were discussed between the two campaign teams.

Q Yes.

MR. McCLELLAN: These were matters that were worked out between Vernon Jordan and Secretary Baker and that's what both campaigns agreed to, and so that's what we're operating under.

Q So he doesn't think anything is going to hamper him or --

MR. McCLELLAN: There are clear choices in this election. And this debate is an opportunity for the President to talk about the clear choices that we face going forward. There are clear choices in the war on terrorism. The President has a strategy for success. Senator Kerry has a strategy of retreat and defeat, and he will -- the President will be talking about those issues.

The American people will know very clearly where the President stands on the most important issues, and the same can't be said about Senator Kerry. And so it's an opportunity to talk about the clear choices that we face for the future. That's what this race should be about and that's what the President will talk about.

Obviously, there's a limit to the amount of time that each person has to respond to the questions and then rebut the -- rebut their opponent. But the President, like I said, looks forward to it.

Q Okay.

MR. McCLELLAN: Thanks.

Q Thanks, Scott.


12:12 P.M. EDT

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