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An earsplitting endorsement for Bush

Rolling Thunder, a veterans group, tours Oval Office

WASHINGTON -- Members of the Rolling Thunder motorcycling group revved their engines on the White House driveway yesterday during a visit with President Bush, who took about 10 bikers in jeans and leather jackets for an Oval Office tour.

The roar from bikers on the Mall could be heard on the South Lawn as eight motorcycles, headlights illuminated and American flags jutting off the rear seats, rolled up the driveway to the South Portico, where Bush was waiting to greet them.

Bush shook hands with Artie Muller, president of the veterans' advocacy group, and kissed Muller's rider, singer Nancy Sinatra, a veterans' supporter, who was dressed in a skirt, cowboy boots, and a pair of dark shades.

Later, Bush addressed, via a telephone hookup, a Rolling Thunder rally at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in the capital.

The president noted the letter of endorsement he received from the group last week. ''Artie, I thought you were going to offer me riding lessons," Bush joked, thanking Rolling Thunder for backing his campaign. ''Ride safe," he told them.

Other bikers who rode up the driveway included White House budget director Josh Bolton, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi, and various Rolling Thunder leaders.

The group endorsed Bush in 2000 over Democrat Al Gore, a Vietnam veteran. This year, they chose Bush, who served stateside in the Texas Air National Guard during Vietnam, over John F. Kerry, a decorated veteran of the same war who is also a motorcycle enthusiast.

Rolling Thunder is an organization that seeks to create awareness of POW/MIA issues and promotes increased veterans' benefits. It has 70 chapters and more than 7,000 members throughout the United States and abroad.

''In the Oval Office, I looked you in the eye as you told me of your relentless pursuit of finding out the plight of many of our POW/MIAs, and I appreciated so much your concern, your care, and your persistence," Bush told the rally.

Phil Singer, a spokesman for Kerry, said, ''It's pretty audacious of the president to brag about looking the leaders of Rolling Thunder in the eye, considering that his most recent veterans initiative is a secret plan to cut almost $1 billion from the Veterans Affairs."

The administration, according to White House documents, has told officials who oversee veterans programs to prepare preliminary 2006 budgets that would cut spending after the presidential election. The documents show spending for the Veterans Affairs Department would fall 3.4 percent from $29.7 billion in 2005 to $28.7 billion. The White House says the memos sent to agencies contain routine guidance, and insists final spending decisions will not be made for months.

Gary Scheffmeyer, vice president of Rolling Thunder, said Bush showed the group around his office, pointing out busts of presidents and paintings. Scheffmeyer said they talked about the war in Iraq, the fight against terrorism, veterans' health benefits, and soldiers still missing from Vietnam.

Kerry, meanwhile, enjoyed a quiet day off the campaign trail. Kerry went for a bike ride and later attended evening Mass and took Communion at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church, walking a few blocks to the church from his Georgetown home.

In celebration of today's holiday, Kerry was to fly to Portsmouth, Va., for the city's 120th annual Memorial Day parade.

The visit to Virginia would be Kerry's first since his campaign said last week he would begin advertising there.

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