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Bush Steps Up Re-Election Rhetoric - 2004-02-24

President Bush is stepping up his re-election campaign with hard-hitting speeches and plans for a multi-million dollar series of television ads. In an address Monday to the nation's Republican governors, Mr. Bush took on his critics and defended his record. It was the most politically charged campaign speech the president has delivered so far in his bid to be re-elected.

"Come November, the voters are going to have a very clear choice. It is 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," said Mr. Bush. "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."

For months, Mr. Bush kept insisting that he would go into full campaign mode when the time was right. Aides indicated he would wait until after the Democrats had decided on a presidential nominee.

But there have been signs the anti-Bush themes of the Democratic primaries and caucuses have had an impact, with the president's popularity dropping in public opinion polls. His top political advisers decided the time to ratchet up the campaign had definitely arrived.

They chose a receptive audience, with the president unveiling a new, tougher campaign speech at a Washington reception hosted by Republican governors. It was a supportive crowd that cheered when the president started talking about the contenders for the Democratic nomination, calling them an interesting group with diverse opinions.

"For tax cuts and against them, for NAFTA and against NAFTA, for the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act, in favor of liberating Iraq and opposed to it," he said. "And that is just one senator from Massachusetts!"

That joking swipe was directed at John Kerry, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, but for the most part the president's message was serious and his tone somber. He talked at length about the twin challenges facing America -- winning the war on terrorism and boosting the economy. Mr. Bush said his opponents have not offered any new strategies, only heated rhetoric.

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

The Bush campaign said it was important for the president to highlight his achievements and offer his vision for the future. But earlier in the day, John Kerry scoffed at that notion, saying the president has a credibility gap. "Tonight, you will hear words. Today, Americans are living the truth."

Senator Kerry talked to reporters during a campaign stop in New York, previewing the electoral battle that could lie ahead. "I think George Bush is on the run," he said. "And he is on the run because he doesn't have a record to run on."

The Massachusetts senator has won 15 of the 17 contests held so far to pick a Democrat to run against President Bush in November. He has only one major challenger for the party's nomination, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina. The two senators face off next on March 2, when 10 states hold presidential primaries.

It is called "Super Tuesday" because party members in so many big states will make their voices heard. Two days later, on March 4, the Bush re-election team will hit back when it unleashes the first of a multi-million dollar barrage of television campaign ads.