Vermont to Bush: Saved best for last

Maybe President Bush doesn't like Birkenstocks, or antiquing, or socialists. It could simply be that the health-conscious president just doesn't dig Ben & Jerry's high-fat ice cream.

Whatever the reason, Mr. Bush has not visited the state of Vermont. He has been to 49 other states and stopped off in more than 60 countries, including Albania, Uganda, Qatar — even Mongolia — but still no trip to Vermont.

Unlike the president's first-ever visit to Rhode Island in June — when he made an appearance at the Naval War College in Newport that both of the state's U.S. senators skipped — Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a vocal administration critic, yesterday made a solemn pledge to be a hospitable host.

"The whole delegation would be there — all three of us. How many other states can you get every single member of the delegation out there?" the senator said with a laugh yesterday.

Mr. Leahy said there are no hard feelings about the profanity Vice President Dick Cheney spewed at him on the Senate floor in 2004, and offered a simple reason why Mr. Bush has not dropped by: "I think he's saving the best for last."

"We would love to have him come up here," Mr. Leahy said, although he acknowledged he has not personally invited the president to visit the state (and passed up an opportunity to do so in this article).

The state's other U.S. senator, though, has not only formally invited Mr. Bush to Vermont, the independent even provided a map on his Web site, although it was not particularly nice — a drawing of Earth with an arrow pointing to Vermont and the words: "We're Here."

"He knows where Maine is, we know that," Sen. Bernard Sanders said, noting that the president has visited Kennebunkport a dozen times. But while the Senate's only self-proclaimed socialist has invited the president to visit, he did not offer a tour of Lake Champlain or the lush rolling mountains.

"We want him to do what he doesn't do enough of: engage in a freewheeling discussion with people and hear what they have to say and answer their questions. If the president came, we'd get the largest facility we possibly could, I would be delighted to moderate it, and he would be treated with the respect as is becoming the president of the United States," he said.

A visit to the Green Mountain State, home of screamin' Howard Dean, a former governor and now the head of the Democratic National Committee, would be fraught with unpleasantness for the former New Englander turned Texas rancher. Mr. Bush got 40.7 percent of the state's vote in 2000 and just 38.8 percent in 2004.

Vermonters are fiercely independent, even contrarian. Republicans controlled the state for more than 100 years; Mr. Leahy was the first-ever Democrat sent to Washington when he was elected in 1974. Former Sen. James Jeffords, a Vermont Republican, threw the Republican Party into a tizzy in 2001 when he switched party affiliations, handing the Democrats control of the Senate.

"Vermont is the opposite of George W. Bush: It's granola, it's crunchy, it's liberal, and it's socialist," said former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who attended Middlebury College in Vermont and still vacations there.

And Mr. Fleischer knows firsthand what the president faces: When he went back to his alma mater — a school of about 2,000 students — to receive an award, "about 1,000 protesters showed up." No place is safe in the state, Mr. Fleischer said: "Even the tallest mountain peak, they'll backpack their way up there to protest the president."

With just 17 months left in office, Mr. Bush will have to decide whether he wants to achieve the milestone. President Clinton nipped in to Nebraska just a month before he left office to give him boasting rights, and President George Bush, who served just one term, completed the feat in three years and two months.

Mr. Fleischer predicted that Mr. Bush, now on vacation in sweltering Crawford, Texas, will go because it will be "healthy to hit all 50 states."

"But he sure saved a doozy for last," he said with a laugh.