Video: Let the campaign quips begin

updated 2/23/2004 9:30:27 PM ET 2004-02-24T02:30:27

President Bush took the offensive on his re-election campaign Monday, casting Sen. John Kerry as a waffler and warning that the Democrats would raise taxes, expand the government and fail to lead decisively on national security.

Previewing his principal re-election theme, Bush made national security the centerpiece of his revamped re-election speech, explicitly invoking the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He questioned the credentials of the Democrats who want his job.

“The action we take and the decisions we make in this decade will have consequences far into this century,” Bush told 1,400 people at a fund-raiser for Republican governors. “If America shows weakness and uncertainty, the world will drift toward tragedy. That will not happen on my watch.”

In his 40-minute address, Bush mentioned none of the Democratic presidential candidates by name, but some of his sharpest criticism was unmistakably intended for Kerry, the front-runner.

“The other party’s nomination battle is still playing out. The candidates are an interesting group with diverse opinions,” Bush said. “They’re for tax cuts and against them. They’re for NAFTA and against NAFTA. They’re for the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act. They’re in favor of liberating Iraq,and opposed to it. And that’s just one senator from Massachusetts.” His supportive audience erupted in laughter and applause.

Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter disputed Bush’s list of purported flip-flops. Kerry opposed Bush’s tax cuts for the richest Americans and stands by that; voted for NAFTA and stands by it; voted for the Patriot Act but believes the Justice Department is using it to trample civil liberties; and stands by his vote to authorize force for Iraq but believes Bush’s prosecution of the war “created a breeding ground for terror” and alienated allies, Cutter said.

Bush made a veiled reference to Kerry’s call, in an interview 34 years ago, for U.N. control of the U.S. military and said:

“America must never outsource America’s national security decisions to the leaders of other governments.”

The president has sought to depict himself as above the political fray in recent months, even as Democrats pummeled him during their primary process. Monday, Bush signaled he has entered a new phase in which he will strike back, shelving an old speech in which he said, “The political season will come in its own time.”

'Clear choice'
Noting that the Democrats had not yet selected a nominee, "This much is already certain," the president told the Republican Governors Association fund-raiser. "Come November, the voters are going to have a very clear choice."

Video: 'A very clear choice' The president said the November election presents “a choice between keeping the tax relief that is moving this economy forward, or putting the burden of higher taxes back on the American people.”

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“It’s a choice between an America that leads the world with strength and confidence, or an America that is uncertain in the face of danger,” Bush said.

Bush pledged to improve the economy and “keep our enemies on the run,” recalling his walk through the rubble of the World Trade Center on Sept. 14, 2001. The Democratic presidential hopefuls “have not offered much in the way of strategies to win the war, or policies to expand the economy,” he said.

Kerry said Bush’s plunge into campaign mode signaled the president is nervous.

“I think George Bush is on the run. And I think he’s on the run because he doesn’t have a record to run on,” Kerry said while campaigning in New York’s Harlem neighborhood.

“I don’t think losing 3 million jobs, having deficits as far as the eye can go, having 2 million people lose their health insurance, turning your back on kids in schools and not funding No Child Left Behind ... represents a vision,” Kerry said later in Queens, N.Y.

Kerry rival John Edwards also took a swipe at Bush, telling voters in Georgia, “The people want this campaign to be about the future, not the past.”

Bush tried to shrug off such criticism Monday as election-year posturing. “It’s going to be the year of the sharp elbow and the quick tongue,” Bush told governors of both parties at the White House.

Bush has kept his eye firmly fixed on re-election since taking office, tailoring his travels to battleground states, racking up IOUs with fellow Republicans and raising more than $151 million for his campaign.

Kicking off campaign
What has changed is his willingness to publicly engage in the campaign, beyond fund-raising.

The new address was billed as a preview of his stump speech and came at a time when he is preparing to launch a multimillion-dollar advertising barrage .

Bush’s spokesman, Scott McClellan, said Monday that the president began filming campaign commercials about two weeks ago in the White House residence.

The ads will air on cable TV around the country and on network stations in competitive markets, with the slogan: “Steady Leadership in Times of Change.” They begin airing March 4, just two days after the wave of primary elections that is likely to cement the Democrats’ pick to challenge Bush.

Bush’s approval ratings have dipped to around 50 percent in recent polls — some in the high 40s.

Bush, his loyalists and their relatives were maintaining their heavy fund-raising efforts this week. Vice President Dick Cheney raised $200,000 in Minneapolis on Monday and another $200,000 Monday evening in Wichita, Kan.

The president sought to end speculation that he will drop Cheney from the re-election ticket. Bush joked that he had again appointed Cheney chief of his vice presidential search committee — and that Cheney had again recommended himself.

“They don’t come any better, and I’m proud to have Dick Cheney by my side,” Bush said.

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