President Bush is looking to inject election-year momentum into his push to let religious groups compete for more federal dollars.
On a sweep through the South aimed at attracting support from blacks and raising campaign cash, Mr. Bush was spending Thursday in Louisiana and Georgia, which combine for 24 of the 270 electoral votes needed to hold the presidency. Mr. Bush won both states handily in 2000.
He was headlining a fund-raiser in each state, a luncheon at the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans and an evening reception at an Atlanta hotel. The events will add to his hefty re-election account.
In Atlanta, Mr. Bush was to be introduced by Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, a conservative who was courted by the campaign after he announced his support last year for the president's re-election.
Mr. Bush was to visit the Union Bethel A.M.E. Church in New Orleans, which has operated a child-care center for decades and makes meals for the homeless every weekend. He was renewing his effort to open more federal spending on social programs to religious groups.
The president has sought legislation to give religious groups access to federal funds as long as their services are available to anyone, but without requiring them to make fundamental changes. The idea could not pass Congress and lawmakers put forward instead a package of tax incentives for charitable giving.
While even that measure awaits approval, Mr. Bush has used executive orders and new regulations to remove many of the barriers that have kept religious groups from competing for federal grants.
Some opponents of the policy fear the government will wind up paying for religion and they object to allowing taxpayer-funded groups to hire and fire based on religious belief. Some in the religious community worry about abiding by the restrictions on their practices that could come with accepting federal money.
For Mr. Bush, the issue is aimed at appealing to two important constituencies: religious conservatives, who make up his base of support, and black voters, only 9 percent of whom supported him in 2000.
Indeed, the president almost always chooses black churches in poor neighborhoods, such as Union Bethel, as the setting to talk about his initiative.
In Atlanta, the president was observing the Martin Luther King holiday four days early by laying a wreath at the late civil rights leader's crypt.
But the visit, planned to mark King's 75th birthday, has upset some civil rights leaders. They say the president's politics and poor scheduling conflict with their plans to honor King.
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, said Bush's policies on the Iraq war, affirmative action and social service funding have been "in direct contradiction to the King legacy."
"It's wonderful to come lay a wreath, but there must be a commitment beyond laying the wreath," Brooks said. "Everyday programs and actions will do that."
The Rev. Tim McDonald of Concerned Black Clergy, which planned a protest during the visit, said Mr. Bush is only making the trip to seek black votes.
"For him to have entered the war in the manner in which he did and now to come to lay a wreath for Doctor King is the epitome of hypocrisy," McDonald said.
Officials at The King Center said they extended no formal invitation to Mr. Bush but agreed to the plans when the White House said he was coming.