Kevin Lamarque  /  Reuters
President Bush waves to supporters after a fund-raising speech Thursday in Santa Clara, Calif.
updated 3/4/2004 6:02:07 PM ET 2004-03-04T23:02:07

President Bush talked up his economic leadership Thursday, rounding out a California tour that gathered $5 million for his and other Republicans’ campaigns and marked the start of more direct criticism of the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

“The economy is getting stronger,” Bush said from an outdoor stage at a family-owned company, Rain for Rent, an irrigation system business. “One of the reasons why I think we’re doing so good here in America is because of the tax relief we passed, is because people have more money in their pockets.”

Bush’s positive picture on the economy was designed to counter criticism from Kerry and other Democrats, who blame the president for job growth that has lagged behind other signs of improvement in the nation’s fiscal health.

The Kerry campaign distributed new numbers Thursday showing that the unemployment rate in Bakersfield rose from 12.7 percent in December to 13.6 percent in January. Statewide, the jobless rate was 6.1 percent in January, compared with 5.6 percent nationally.

“George W. Bush has consistently promised that his tax cuts will deliver jobs but the results are terrible,” the Kerry campaign statement said.

Adding to cash advantage
Bush, meanwhile, headlined a luncheon in Silicon Valley that added $700,000 to his campaign operation. The president has already collected more than $153 million for his re-election bid.

About $10 million of that money swung into action Thursday with the first airings of a television advertising blitz by the Bush campaign. The ads, featuring images of the destroyed World Trade Center, drew sharp criticism from relatives of the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

On his way to the Bakersfield airport, Bush stopped along the side of the road, where about 800 cheering elementary school students stood with U.S. flags. Bush made his way down the line of children, shaking hands and hugging them.

The president has wasted no time going after Kerry after he was assured his party’s nomination with this week’s victories in the “Super Tuesday” primaries. At a cocktail reception Wednesday night benefiting the Bush campaign in Los Angeles, the president made it clear that he would contrast himself as a straight-talking president against Kerry as a flip-flopping challenger.

“He spent two decades in Congress. he’s built up quite a record,” Bush told the crowd of 600, which added $800,000 to his campaign coffers. “In fact, Senator Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue.”

Bush repeated his criticisms nearly word-for-word Thursday in Santa Clara. He accused Kerry of wanting to raise taxes, expand the federal government, oppose effective job-creation measures and endanger U.S. security.

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“Voters have a clear choice,” he told contributors, with “Leadership” in blue and white capital letters over his head. “I’ll leave no doubt where I stand. We look forward to winning on the 2nd of November.”

Although Bush lost California’s 55 electoral votes by a wide margin in 2000, the election of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who attended a swanky fund-raiser Wednesday night in Bel Air, has the White House hoping for a better result in November.

“With Arnold in the game, it’s a totally different ballgame,” said Gerald Parsky, Bush’s California campaign chairman.

From California, Bush was going to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, for a long weekend that will include a visit by Mexican President Vicente Fox .

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