LOS ANGELES, March 3 -- President Bush kicked off his general-election campaign on Wednesday by lighting into Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) by name for the first time and launching a two-day, $5 million fundraising spree in the nation's largest state.
At a $2,000-a-plate dinner at the Shrine Auditorium, Bush recounted his Tuesday night congratulatory call to Kerry and told supporters with a smile that the campaign "should be an interesting debate on the issues."
"He spent two decades in Congress; he's built up quite a record," Bush said, to laughter. "In fact, Senator Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue."
Bush referred seven times in his half-hour speech to "my opponent," saying that Kerry "hasn't offered much in the way of strategies to win the war, or policies to expand our economy."
Accusing Kerry of having "the same old Washington mind-set," Bush said the senator "seems to be against every idea that gives Americans more authority, more choices, and more control over our own lives."
At Bush's first stop in Los Angeles, he drew repeatedly on the vocabulary of the pulpit as he addressed 1,200 ministers and other religious workers at a conference organized by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He created the office to help churches, mosques and synagogues compete for federal contracts for services including tutoring and drug rehabilitation.
"I'm here to thank you . . . for hearing that call," he said. "Actually, I shouldn't be thanking you. I should be thanking a higher power for giving you the call."
The faith-based initiative is one of the White House's primary outreaches to African Americans and Hispanics, and both groups were heavily represented in the audience at the Los Angeles convention center this afternoon. "Let me put your mind at ease," he said. "We're talking about healing our nation. We're not talking politics."
Nevertheless, the appearance was a milestone for Bush's reelection campaign, which is emphasizing cultural issues as he continues to court conservatives before turning to swing voters.
He flew into the Golden State the day after Kerry clinched the Democratic presidential nomination with huge victories in California and other Super Tuesday states. Bush lost California by 11 percentage points in 2000, so his decision to spend Wednesday and Thursday here was a signal that he intends to force Kerry to defend what should be safe territory.
After the Shrine fundraiser, Bush spoke to a $25,000-a-person dinner that raised $3.5 million for Republican National Committee dinner at the home of A. Jerrold Perenchio, a billionaire sports promoter who was the beneficiary last year of a controversial merger decision by the administration.
Perenchio is chairman and chief executive of the Spanish-language media giant Univision, and the Justice Department and then the Federal Communications Commission approved a merger with Hispanic Broadcasting Corp. that public interest groups and many Democrats said would give Anglo executives a near-monopoly over the Spanish-language media.
At the faith-based event, Bush referred to his own Christian faith and his heavy drinking before he became a teetotaler. He said religious groups can stay true to their faith when using federal dollars, but must follow rules to maintain a separation of church and state.
"You can't, if you're a faith-based organization, say, 'Only Methodists allowed,' " he said, to laughter. "You know, you can say, 'All drunks are welcome.' "
When Bush was unable to get Congress to enact his plan for lowering barriers to faith-based groups, he held a signing ceremony in 2002 for executive orders that would accomplish much the same through regulatory action.
"Congress wouldn't act, so I signed an executive order," he said. "That means I did it on my own."