President Bush launched his opening attack on Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) last night, asserting that his likely opponent would raise taxes, stifle business and expand government while weakening America's defenses.
Casting himself as a candidate for the first time, Bush framed the election as a stark choice between "an America that leads the world with strength and confidence, or an America that is uncertain in the face of danger."
"The American people will decide between two visions of government: a government that encourages ownership and opportunity and responsibility -- or a government that takes your money and makes your choices," he said at the Washington Convention Center, at a $1,000-a-person fundraising reception for the Republican Governors Association. "The security and prosperity of America are at stake."
Bush made it clear that he will portray Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, as an unworthy successor as commander in chief of the war on terrorism. "If America shows weakness and uncertainty, the world will drift toward tragedy," he said. "That will not happen on my watch."
Until now, Bush has tried to remain above the fray of the campaign. Despite speaking at 48 fundraisers for his $170 million campaign, he has left attacks to other GOP officials. White House aides had planned to shield him from overt politics for at least another month but said they concluded that attacks by Kerry and other Democrats were proving too damaging to continue unanswered. Republican officials said Bush plans to follow President Bill Clinton's approach in 1996 and begin campaigning without making an official announcement.
Bush offered no new proposals. He did not name Kerry, but aides said the senator was the target of the speech. Marc Racicot, the Bush-Cheney campaign chairman, said Kerry was the "apparent and presumptive nominee," even though Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) remains a "mathematical" contender.
Bush, in his most partisan and confrontational speech since the midterm elections of 2002, made one specific allusion to Kerry that he cloaked in humor. "The other party's nomination battle is still playing out," he said. "The candidates are an interesting group, with diverse opinions: for tax cuts and against them; for NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] and against NAFTA; for the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act; in favor of liberating Iraq and opposed to it. And that's just one senator from Massachusetts."
Kerry told reporters in New York that he has Bush "on the run." He said later in a statement that Bush gave the speech "as if the past three-and-a-half years never happened."
"George Bush's credibility is running out with the American people," Kerry said. "They want change in America, and I'm running because I am determined to bring that change and put America back on track."
Republican officials said that, in a move that will thrill a group of voters whose enthusiasm will be crucial, Bush plans to speak out as soon as this week in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Christian conservative leaders have chosen the amendment as their most important issue of the year, and several of those leaders have expressed impatience at Bush's delay in publicly stating his support. Bush plans to endorse the version introduced by Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (R-Colo.) -- which states that marriage in the United States "shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman" -- by saying that it "reflects his principles," a GOP official said.
With no public announcement, Bush taped campaign advertisements in the White House residence and outdoors on the White House grounds during the week of Feb. 9, the campaign said. The ads will begin airing a week from Thursday on national cable channels, on broadcast stations in targeted markets and on Spanish-language outlets.
Bush threw himself into the campaign last night after Republican lawmakers, governors and donors besieged the White House and campaign with pleas that he be more aggressive in fighting back against Democratic attacks. Officials said the governors' reception was chosen as a venue for launching what they call "the engagement phase" of Bush's campaign so the governors and donors would go back home telling how eager Bush is to take the offensive against Kerry.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said Bush "begins his campaign on his back foot, because his job ratings are down and his personal image has suffered" because of questions about his National Guard service and the absence of the weapons of mass destruction he had said were stockpiled in Iraq.
In a head-to-head matchup, Kerry beat Bush by 52 percent to 43 percent among registered voters in a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Feb. 12. His job approval rating was 50 percent, down from 71 percent on April 30, two weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government.
Ten days ago, Bush released his military records in an effort to quell questions about his service in the Texas Air National Guard. In a statement that Democrats called an exaggeration, Racicot said on National Public Radio yesterday that Bush "signed up for dangerous duty -- he volunteered to go to Vietnam." Racicot added that Bush "wasn't selected to go."
Bush, speaking in front of more than a dozen U.S. flags, began his 42-minute talk last night with a tribute to Ronald Reagan. Then he sought to still the rumors about whether Vice President Cheney will remain on the ticket. "Once again, I put him in charge of my vice presidential search committee," Bush said, referring to Cheney's role in 2000. "He tells me he's reviewed all the candidates, and he's come back with the same recommendation as last time. In fact, I made the choice myself and have taken the measure of this man. They don't come any better."
Bush, saying he looks forward to a spirited campaign, spent much of the speech defending and boasting about what he called "a record of historic achievement." He promised to "win our second term."
"A president needs to step up and make the hard decisions and keep his commitments, and that is how I will continue to lead our country," Bush said. "Great events will turn on this election. The man who sits in the Oval Office will set the course of the war on terror and the direction of our economy."
Bush told the National Governors Association earlier in the day that he expects this will be "the year of the sharp elbow and the quick tongue." He said last night that Democrats "have their own plan for these tax cuts -- they plan to take them away" and "use that money to expand the federal government." He portrayed himself as the candidate of optimism, saying, "Anger is not an agenda for the future of America."