WASHINGTON -- When Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge leaves the Washington area on official business, nearly three-fifths of his public events are in the 17 states considered the most hotly contested in the presidential election. Overall, Ridge and his senior executives, who have pledged that the department would not become entrenched in politics, did nearly half their public events in those 17 states, according to a review by The Associated Press. That includes the electoral prizes of Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The review looked at the department's travel outside of Washington in the past seven months as 22 senior officials hit the road to hand out grants, take tours and talk to private companies. They also met with department employees and made speeches on homeland security actions by the Bush administration.
The department says that its officials go to states with the greatest homeland security needs, such as big cities or areas with ports or borders, and that politics does not play a role in travel decisions.
But the trips have rankled some Democrats.
"It seems that the Bush administration has once again taken its eye off of Osama bin Laden and placed it squarely on the Nov. 2 election," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a New Yorker who heads the House Democrats homeland security task force.
One Democratic congressional aide called the department to complain after Sue Mencer, head of the Office of Domestic Preparedness, traveled to the Marysville, Ohio, firehouse to deliver a grant that had been awarded weeks earlier. Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry are in a close race in Ohio.
The department's travel includes visits by officials to Tampa, Florida, for a hurricane conference and to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for a speech at the 20th National Space Symposium. It also includes addresses at trade and industry association annual conferences in cities known for such events, such as Las Vegas.
And it includes stops at ports, firehouses and police stations that dot towns in key campaign states from Oregon to Pennsylvania.
The figures stem from an Associated Press analysis of the department's public schedules since the March 2 Super Tuesday primaries, when Kerry won enough support to seal the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. The schedules are regularly sent to reporters and do not include travel and events not open to the public.
Although the political battleground has shifted over the course of the campaign, Bush and Kerry have devoted resources and attention to a core group of 17 states _ or one third of the country _ since March.
Historically, Republican and Democratic administrations have used the power of the incumbency to draw attention to their programs before an election.
But Ridge said his department is staying out of the fray. "We don't do politics in the Department of Homeland Security," he has said.
Ridge and his senior deputies stayed home from this summer's Republican convention in New York. Ridge also has made a point of avoiding political fund-raisers.
In an interview last month, he said it was a coincidence that he was traveling to the most contested states, noting that many trips are to Pennsylvania, where he served as governor. "Once a governor, always a governor," he said.
Seven of his 53 public events outside of Washington were in his home state.
"I hope you look at the schedule all year long," Ridge said when asked about a specific week in September when he and his deputies scheduled travel to Missouri, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Ohio, all key political states. "There are certain venues, certain events and certain associations that we just feel that we need to get out and talk to."
On Wednesday, Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said that Ridge has done events with Republicans and Democrats and often travels to Democratic-leaning states.
"We have made a specific point not to include politics in our decision to travel," Roehrkasse said. "Our travel is prioritized by our homeland security mission and going to those areas that have greater homeland security needs."
Roehrkasse said that means visiting states with higher populations, large cities, critical infrastructure and agency employees at ports, border crossings and airports.
He also noted that department officials have frequented Arizona, Washington, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Florida because of their homeland security importance. Florida, he said, got particular attention in August and September because of an unprecedented four hurricanes there.
The department's officials do travel often to populated states that are not hotly contested. For example, officials attended 14 public events in California and 21 in New York in the same period. On average, Roehrkasse said Ridge has been to New York City at least every six weeks since the department opened in January 2003.
But there are some incongruities. Officials did four events in hotly contested Iowa, but only two in New Jersey, where neither candidate is aggressively competing. The financial sector in New Jersey is under a heightened terror alert.
The officials did 16 public events in Florida - five listed as directly involving hurricanes and hurricane preparedness - but just seven in Texas.