As protesters gathered just blocks away, President Bush told an enthusiastic veterans group in the Salt Palace Monday that "we will finish the task" in fighting terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, conflicts where more than 2,000 American military men and women have lost their lives.

Looking relaxed and tan after several weeks of vacation, Bush clearly enjoyed addressing the 106th convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, receiving two standing ovations before he even spoke and another as he finished his half-hour address.

As expected, the president took the opportunity to rally support for the Iraq war. Recent polls show Americans are moving to oppose the war and most disapprove of how Bush runs the country.

Taking a break from his five-week stay at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, the president is moving through heavily Republican states, addressing various patriotic groups in defense of his war on terror.

"A policy of retreat and isolation will not bring us safety," Bush said. "The only way to defend our citizens where we live is to go after the terrorists where they live."

More than 1,000 demonstrators gathered in Pioneer Park to protest against Bush and his policies. They included Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson, who greeted a morning meeting of the VFW. Anderson, a Democrat, was met with a few boos in the convention hall because the mayor had called last Friday for Utahns to protest the GOP president's policies.

Inside the hall, Bush received only applause and plaudits. He waded into the crowd after his speech, spending nearly a half hour greeting many of the estimated 9,000 veterans and their spouses.

"What a great, great man to do that, to spend that time with us," said one vet from Iowa who tried to work his way near the president but couldn't get close enough for a handshake.

Bush also took a few minutes to greet members of the Utah National Guard before boarding Air Force One on the tarmac at the Utah Air National Guard headquarters. The crowd of more than 50, which included Guard members and their families, cheered the president as he shook hands across the barricades.

"We know he's a busy man, so for him to take time for us means a lot," said Capt. Jeffrey Morrison of the Utah Air National Guard.

Bush's arrival at approximately 10:40 a.m. Monday was less conspicuous, with only a few dignitaries, including Utah officials, Republican Party leaders and World War II veteran Willie Hunsaker greeting him. Hunsaker was given the President's Volunteer Service Award by Bush at the convention.

From Utah, Bush flew to Idaho, where he will spend a couple of days at a resort and also address a National Guard group. Starting with his weekly Saturday radio address, Bush is reminding Americans why it is imperative to stay the course in Iraq and to take the fight against terrorism around the world, White House aides say.

While Bush was articulate Monday in his defense of the war on terror, he proposed no new solutions.

He shied away from even mentioning the topic of setting a timetable to remove U.S. troops from Iraq, something that critics inside and outside of Congress are demanding.

Bush said his administration's three-prong "comprehensive strategy to win this war on terror" is working — protect the homeland, take the fight to the enemy and advance freedom through creating new democracies.

He said the Patriot Act, a comprehensive combining of various criminal investigatory authorities, must be renewed by Congress this year. "It gives our law enforcement officers many of the same tools to fight terrorism that they already have to fight drugs and street crime," Bush said.

The president said Americans must "take the fight to the terrorists abroad before they can attack us here at home. This is the most difficult and dangerous mission in the war."

Since the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., 1,864 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq, another 223 in Afghanistan, Bush said. He said each is grieved by family and friends; each of these "heroes" left a legacy for liberty.

"We owe them something," Bush said.

"We will finish the task that they gave their lives for. We will honor their sacrifice by staying on the offensive against the terrorists and building strong allies in Afghanistan and Iraq that will help us win and fight — fight and win the war on terror.

"The people of Iraq have made a clear choice. In spite of threats and assassinations, more than 8 million citizens defied the car bombers and killers and voted in free elections." Iraqis are committed to building a secure, free nation, he added.

"Our enemies have no regard for human life. They're trying to hijack a great religion to justify a dark vision. They are trying to shake our will. They kill the innocent. They kill women and children, knowing that the images of their brutality will horrify civilized peoples."

In all their objectives, terrorists try to intimidate Americans and the free world, Bush said.

"And in all their objectives, they will fail."

Recalling other great conflicts, such as World War II, Bush said, "Once again, America has found patriots who are selfless and tireless and unrelenting in the face of danger. Once again, the American people have been steadfast and determined not to lose our nerve."

Norm Nelson, a Korean and Vietnam war veteran from Perry, said Bush "was awesome" in his appearance. Anderson's call for anti-Bush protests had little or no impact on veterans at the convention, Nelson said. He said all of the veterans he had talked to said "how hospitable, how nice, Salt Lake is."

VFW Commander-in-Chief John Furgess, leader of the 1.8 million-member group, told the convention that like other presidents, veterans have differences with some Bush policies. In fact, Furgess handed Bush a coin symbolizing what Furgess said was the $1 billion underfunding of veterans' needs. But, Furgess said, for three years straight Bush has met personally with VFW leaders. "We appreciate that face-to-face" interaction, he said.

Besides remarks by Anderson, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, briefly addressed the convention, all praising veterans.

Hatch, who flew into Salt Lake City with Bush on Air Force One, urged the VFW to continue pressuring the U.S. Senate to pass the Hatch-sponsored constitutional amendment that would allow Congress to pass flag desecration laws.

Comment on this story "We're two votes short in the Senate" to passing the amendment, Hatch said. A similar bill has already passed the House. Bush, too, said he supports such an amendment.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com; jloftin@desnews.com