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Chicago trip a glimpse of 2004 Bush strategy

CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) -- To cheers and applause, President Bush marched in Chicago's St. Patrick's Day parade Saturday -- part of a road trip analysts said could have some political benefits.

The first sitting president to walk in this city's St. Patrick's Day parade, Bush made the trip to honor Irish-Americans, who greeted him warmly throughout the parade route.

Political pundits, however, saw it as another example of how the administration has made courting Roman Catholics a huge priority.

"This is a classic case of ethnic politics -- the president telling Irish Catholics that he recognizes them, he appreciates them, he values them and, subtly, he wants their votes," said Stu Rothenberg, a political analyst based in Washington.

The courting of the Catholic vote makes sense in the context of the 2000 presidential election.

VIDEO
CNN's Kelly Wallace reports on President Bush's visit to Chicago, Illinois, for a St. Patrick's Day Parade as he tries to court Catholic voters, a key constituency in 2004 (March 17)

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In that contest, Bush narrowly lost the Catholic vote to Democratic rival Al Gore. That was a significant achievement because, when it came to the Catholic vote, Bill Clinton beat former Sen. Bob Dole by 16 points in 1996.

Catholics could be key for the president, Republicans say, especially because Bush did not win the popular vote.

"This president must obviously put down a wider, deeper base of support than what he had in 2000, or he may not be re-elected," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska. "He certainly understands that."

The president's recent travel schedule suggests he has not forgotten the 2000 election, the closest in modern history. This year alone, Bush has been to Florida -- the state which decided the presidential race -- three times.

His trips have also focused on states he narrowly lost or states he won by six points or fewer in 2000.

Bush is also going to places to boost Republican chances in the 2002 elections, raising money for Elizabeth Dole, a Senate candidate in North Carolina, and helping governors, such as his brother Jeb in Florida, hold onto their jobs in November.

All this activity underscores one point: The president's advisers know that if Republicans lose control of the House and fail to regain control of the Senate, Bush will face an uphill battle getting his agenda passed -- and scoring legislative and policy victories to tout in 2004.

From CNN White House Correspondent Kelly Wallace