The president, at the urging of supporters, goes on the attack.

WASHINGTON – President Bush, defending his presidency in tough times, charged Monday night that his Democratic challengers were mired in the “same old Washington mind-set.”

“They’ll give the orders,” he said, “and you’ll pay the bills.”

After months of insisting he was just warming up as he set about raising a record campaign kitty of $200 million, Bush served notice that he was ready to engage his Democratic opponent in what promises to be a bare-knuckles campaign – even before Democrats have settled on their presidential nominee.

“So far, all we hear is a lot of old bitterness and partisan anger,” the president said. “Anger is not an agenda for the future of America.”

In November, he said, voters will have a clear choice.

“It’s a choice between keeping the tax relief that is moving the economy forward or putting the burden of higher taxes back on the American people,” Bush told the nation’s Republican governors. “It is a choice between an America that leads the world with strength and confidence, or an America that is uncertain in the face of danger.”

The president never mentioned by name either the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, or the other major rival, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. But the Bush campaign left no doubt that they expect to face Kerry, releasing a flood of e-mails in recent days attacking him by name, particularly on national security issues.

The Bush campaign ridiculed the senator’s opposition to the first Persian Gulf War 13 years ago and his votes over the years against myriad military weapons systems.

Bristling at the charges, Kerry told reporters on the campaign trail in New York that was not going to “allow these Republicans to somehow suggest” that he was soft on defense “when I have voted for the largest defense budgets in the history of our nation.”

“Tonight, you’ll hear words,” he said ahead of Bush’s new stump speech. “Today, Americans are living the truth.”

“George Bush is on the run,” Kerry said, “because he doesn’t have a record to run on.”

Hopping from one state to another, Kerry and Edwards are scrambling for votes in the 10 Super Tuesday contests March 2. And Kerry, who has won all but two of the contests so far, has increasingly focused his attention on Bush and the fall campaign.

The president, whose job approval ratings have dropped below 50 percent for the first time and who trails Kerry and Edwards in some polls, has been pressed by fellow Republicans to fight back.

“It’s been a tough couple of months,” acknowledged one ranking Republican official, who discussed the Bush campaign on condition of anonymity.

Early in January, Bush’s proposal to change immigration law to create a temporary guest worker program drew criticism from some conservative Republicans, who charged it would unduly reward undocumented immigrants, and from some Democrats, who said it didn’t go far enough in addressing festering immigration problems.

Bush’s proposal to send man back to the moon and on to Mars has been dismissed by Republicans and Democrats alike as too costly in a time of record federal budget deficits.

His State of the Union address also provided no boost in the polls. The budget he sent to Congress with a projected deficit this year of $521 billion was roundly rebuked by fiscal conservatives, including many in his own party who warned of runaway spending. And the assertion by David Kay, the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, that there were no stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons has stoked an escalating debate at home and abroad about the U.S. rationale for toppling Saddam Hussein.

“What’s done is done,” the GOP official said, acknowledging the president’s slump.

“There are ups and downs,” he said, suggesting all campaigns are roller coasters. “We’re in the down part of the roller coaster.”

The president’s stump speech is but one part of a retooled, more aggressive re-election campaign strategy that aides say will include the first television ads on March 4 and the relentless use of GOP research of Kerry’s public record, from his tenure in the Senate to his days in Vietnam as a decorated Navy officer.

“We’re not going to let too much time elapse while Senator Kerry is running from his record,” said Bush’s campaign chairman, Marc Racicot, the former governor of Montana.

The first Bush campaign ads, though, are being described as positive and will seek to portray the president as a strong leader in tough times.

But Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the senator’s campaign expects only “attack-machine politics” down the road.

In his speech Monday at a fund-raiser for the Republican Governors Association at the Washington Convention Center, Bush ran through his usual litany of campaign issues, dwelling particularly on the continuing war against terrorism and his efforts to make permanent the tax cuts that he pushed through Congress.

But his tone and words were harshly more partisan that his earlier fund-raising speeches.

“The American people will decide between two visions of government,” he said, “a government that encourages ownership and opportunity and responsibility, or a government that takes your money and makes your choices.”

He said his Democratic challengers have offered little “in the way of strategies to win the war, or policies to expand our economy.”

“They seem to be against every idea that gives Americans more authority and more choices and more control over their own lives,” he said, suggesting there was a “theme” to the Democrats’ election-year promises.

“Every promise will increase the power of politicians and bureaucrats over your income, over your retirement, over your health care and over your life,” Bush said.

(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News.

Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-02-23-04 2026EST

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