Extra dose of red, white and blue: Bush administration handlers are seeing red and liking it \— a unique chance for the president and key Cabinet members to visit the reddest of red states and address a veterans organization steadfast in its support of the war on terror. Threatening this perfect setup is Salt Lake City's mayor, a Democrat, who has dared to invite a leading anti-war activist to publicly criticize the commander-in-chief.

WASHINGTON — Speaking to one of the country's largest veterans organizations is not unusual for President Bush, but the timing — and location of his speech in Salt Lake City — is almost too perfect as the November election creeps closer.

Bush is set to speak Thursday at the American Legion Convention in Salt Lake City, and while several planned protests will make sure those unhappy with the president or the war in Iraq get a chance to speak their mind, the commander-in-chief is likely to have a captive audience at the Salt Palace Convention Center in a strongly Republican state.

"The president believes the American Legion is one of America's great organizations, and he looks forward to addressing these veterans who served our country," White House spokesman Peter Watkins said.

This is an official visit — the president accepted an invitation from the Legion — but it is "absolutely" appropriate to read between the lines a little in looking at how and why he is here, said Josh Gold, an assistant professor of political science at Salt Lake Community College.

"It makes for really good pictures on the news," Gold said. "It's about image management."

Gold said Bush's approval ratings are down, so the president speaking to a group of veterans in Utah is a safe bet.

"Go to a place where you are welcome," Gold said. "Utah's a very conservative state, and it is always nice to be with people of like mind."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld precede Bush's visit by two days and are scheduled to address the same convention today.

Lewis Wolfson, director of American University's "Dialogue with the Press" and an expert on the presidency and communication, said their presence factors into the notion that Bush's appearance could coincide "with developing a new policy or a new strategy."

Gold said Rice's and Rumsfeld's appearances are a good way to show the veterans, and the country, that they are "unified" on the war. "It shows there are no divisions," Gold said.

Frank Guliuzza, chairman of the political science department at Weber State University, said he expects the speech to serve as a "kick-off" for the administration's position on the war that will carry through the November election. He said it will be interesting to see if there is a bounce in poll numbers for Republican candidates and incumbents, or if it comes off as a "dud."

Deseret Morning News graphicPresidential visitsRequires Adobe Acrobat.

Guliuzza, who is a former vice chairman of the Utah Republican Party, said he did not know if there was much more to Bush's visit than "a very good audience in a good location."

He said if the president had come before the state's primary election, it would have been seen as more of a political trip. But now, after the election, it is a "nice coincidence" that Bush can address the veterans in a friendly state.

Bush spoke at the same convention in San Antonio in 2001; St. Louis in 2003; and Nashville, Tenn., in 2004. Each visit came around the same time in August, so the timing may be out of the White House's control. But the decision to accept the invitation is not.

Bush skipped this year's Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nev., also taking place this week. Vice President Dick Cheney addressed that convention on Monday.

But Wolfson believes the political perks of the Utah visit are more substantial.

"It is not coincidental on the timing of this, with the fall election," Wolfson said. "The Republicans fear that the war is a card that is going to be played in election races."

Wolfson said the administration "is on the defense about the war," pointing to the president's press conference earlier this month and slipping poll numbers on his performance.

"People have a sense that we are losing control over there," Wolfson said. "We know public opinion in general has turned against the war."

When Bush hit Salt Lake City for the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention last year, he was also met with protests.

Guliuzza said protesters would likely be at any presidential appearance and that he would be "shocked" if even a graduation speech done by the president would not have policy language intertwined with it.

The protests provide local folks with an opportunity to show that they are there and vocal in their opposition to the president or the war in Iraq or both, he added.

"Utah is not the reddest of red states," Guliuzza said, "but it's pretty darn red."

E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com