AUSAU, Wis., July 29 — A trio of Cabinet secretaries rolled by bus today across an ailing industrial swath of the upper Midwest, where they spread a message of sunshine about President Bush's economic policies to an edgy and often skeptical public.
On the first half of a two-day, six-city, 550-mile road trip, Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans and Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao motored westward in a luxury coach with black leather sofas and a mirrored ceiling, soon to be used by the rock band Aerosmith, to promote the president's tax cuts.
Mr. Snow spoke to audiences in a clipped, assertive cadence, Mr. Evans was enthusiastic in mellifluous Texas tones and Ms. Chao struck the cheery manner of a woman who seemed thrilled to be touring a forklift rental company, a frozen custard maker and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle plant. But the three members of Mr. Bush's economic team offered an identical view to their listeners: the president is concerned, but the economy will improve.
"It's important I think for people like us who spend so much time inside the Beltway to get outside the Beltway," said Mr. Snow as he sat with Mr. Evans and Ms. Chao on the "Jobs and Growth Tour"' bus as it rumbled past the cornfields of Highway 29 in central Wisconsin. The lesson he took from his day, he said, was the vitality of American business and the realization that "you can't spend time at Harley-Davidson without being deeply impressed."
Democrats attacked the bus tour as a Bush administration feel-good publicity stunt and said that it was nothing more than a campaign trip in two important political states, Wisconsin and Minnesota, that the White House has identified as important for 2004.
"It's a slap in the face," said Kim Warkentin, the executive director of the Wisconsin state Democratic Party. "We've lost over 42,000 jobs in Wisconsin, and they're out there touting their economic plan when it's not addressing the needs of low-income folks."
Mr. Snow defended the road trip, calling it a "dialogue tour," and said that the Cabinet threesome was listening to the concerns of ordinary citizens.
The secretaries on the bus heard plenty of those concerns at the first stop of the day, just outside Milwaukee at the Harley-Davidson factory, a popular pilgrimage spot for American politicians of both parties. After a tour of the plant that makes Harley engines and transmissions, the three listened to Harley employees and suppliers question what they called the administration's rosy economic forecasts. Much of the concern centered on foreign competition.
Michael Retzer, a Republican and a consultant to Ram Inc., a Harley-Davidson supplier, said he did not see how the administration's tax cuts would stimulate the economy when so many consumers would spend the extra money on goods manufactured overseas. Mr. Snow answered by saying that the rate cuts were "pretty sizable tax relief," which did not satisfy Mr. Retzer.
"They danced around it," he said, adding, "Right now I am very disillusioned with the Republicans' policies."
The bus tour was timed to capitalize on the income-tax rate cuts that went into effect this month and the first of the $400 child tax credit checks, which were mailed out last week.
"Did you get your check?" Mr. Snow asked a table of customers at Culver's Frozen Custard and ButterBurgers in Wausau. John Tubbs, a bank senior vice president, told Mr. Snow he had not.
"He said they've just started going out — the check's in the mail," Mr. Tubbs recounted after the secretary had moved on from his vanilla frozen custard.
The three secretaries said they had never traveled on a bus together before — and certainly not one also used by Aerosmith. "I didn't bring their albums with me this time," Mr. Snow said during a joint press briefing.
A protest bus followed the secretaries' bus throughout the day. Hired by Wisconsin Citizen Action, it contained some two dozen people who waved placards at each stop, from Milwaukee to Green Bay to Wausau, saying, "Read Bush's Lips: No New Jobs."
Ms. Chao took issue with the notion that people were upset with the president's economic policies, and told employees at the Harley-Davidson plant, "There are still a great many employers and companies who are looking for workers with the requisite skills."