DETROIT - George W. Bush returned to familiar territory and themes Wednesday, promoting his education agenda in the crucial Midwest.
In a pocket of urban poverty, he showcased a rigorous kindergarten-through-8th-grade Christian school for black students who attend classes 11 months a year. It requires involvement by parents and business-community "partners" who share tuition costs.
"This school challenges what I call the soft bigotry of low expectations," the presumed Republican nominee said.
Mr. Bush conducted back-to-back education events in Michigan and Ohio following a two-day trip to the nation's capital, where he ventured into what Democrats have called unfamiliar territory for him - foreign policy.
On his Midwest swing, he was on comfortable turf at an education roundtable discussion and sitting in a reading circle with uniform-clad kindergarten students.
After praising the students for their reading skills, he read a letter they had written to him, which said, "Thank you for trying to be our president. We hope you get a lot of people to vote for you."
Mr. Bush responded, "So do I."
Besides emphasizing education, the Texas governor used the events in Detroit and at a Columbus, Ohio, inner-city public school on Tuesday to indicate that he's not ceding the black vote to Democratic opponent Al Gore.
Michigan and Ohio are both considered battleground states. Polls show Mr. Bush slightly ahead in Ohio. In Michigan, where he lost the primary to John McCain, he now runs even with Mr. Gore, although he trails in Detroit.
The Detroit visit also underscored his philosophy of promoting faith-based institutions to tackle society's ills.
"I understand the delicate issue of church and state," he said, "but we should not be afraid to teach basic values." The school visits followed a favorite Bush format, where a dozen people - educators, parents and community leaders - discuss education before a school audience.
The format provides Mr. Bush an opportunity to talk about what has worked in Texas schools and to repeat his signature sound bites:
"Cultures and societies change one heart, one soul, one conscience at a time," he said.
"Reading is the new civil right. If you can't read, you can't access the American dream."
"In Texas, we start with the premise that every child can learn - every child."
Under his proposed national education agenda, low- performing schools would be given three years to improve. If they don't, states could give federal Title I funds directly to parents for use at other schools.
Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer, who distributed Gore information outside the Detroit event, called the plan a "back-door voucher" and said it signifies Mr. Bush's lack of commitment to public schools.
Mr. Gore, who opposes vouchers, recently spent two days visiting Michigan public schools.
Tuesday in Columbus, Ohio, Republican Gov. Bob Taft said his state "stole some of the good ideas from Texas' Reading First program" and vowed to hold Mr. Bush to his pledge for a national Reading First program.
The plan Mr. Bush has outlined would provide $5 billion over five years for teacher training and student assessment to teach every child to read by third grade.
Carolyn Rogers, a Columbus public school administrator, said she's glad that reading is part of Mr. Bush's agenda. But, she added, "I intend to vote for Mr. Gore."
Dianne Bostic-Robinson, the black president of the Detroit Junior League, said she was impressed by Mr. Bush but wants "to see how it continues in the debate" before she makes her presidential selection.