WASHINGTON – President Bush plunges headfirst into the campaign season Monday with a new stump speech previewing a "new period of engagement."
In a speech scheduled for later Monday, Bush will say the choice — domestically — is between extending his tax cuts, or choking off the economic recovery. But the foundation of his re-election platform is national security, according to campaign officials.
"In a dangerous world, it's a choice between a policy of strength and confidence versus a policy of uncertainty," said Bush-Cheney '04 campaign manager Ken Mehlman.
The step-up in the Bush-Cheney campaign comes amid the release of several polls showing the current White House resident's numbers slipping.
According to a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll released Friday, Democratic front-runner John Kerry (search) would finish in a dead heat with Bush if the presidential election were held today; both would receive 45 percent of the vote.
Bush's approval rating also dropped below 50 percent for the first time in his presidency in that poll.
"Tonight's sort of the unveiling of his campaign, his message" where he'll likely take on front-runner Kerry, Paul Bedard of U.S. News and World Report told Fox News. "It's what Republicans have really wanted to see."
Although Bush will not mention the Massachusetts senator by name, the Bush-Cheney campaign believes the math favors Kerry as the likely nominee to go head-to-head with Bush in November. And campaign officials say the president "won't wait for the fat lady to sing to make his case for re-election."
Kerry so far has won all but two of the Democratic caucuses and primaries.
Campaigning in New York Monday, Kerry and his main rival, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, launched pre-emptive attacks on the president's address.
"I think it's obvious that is interesting that we have George Bush on the run because he's going out there and will start this campaign officially tonight before we even have a nominee of the Democratic Party," Kerry said.
"I believe that what he will do tonight is run away from his own record because he doesn't have a record to run on."
Edwards' camp released a statement that said, "the American people want this campaign to be about the future, not the past."
"We offer leadership and hope, the Republicans want to exploit fears and relitigate the past," Edwards said in the statement. "I've got a message for this president and Washington from ordinary people: This election isn't about my past. It's not about John Kerry's past or the president's past. This election is about the future, and the new ideas we have that will change America so that it works for all of us."
Bush on Monday stressed the need to put politics aside.
"This is going to be a year in which a lot of people are probably going to think nothing can get done because we're all out campaigning. Well that's not my attitude," Bush said. I fully understand it's going to be the year of the sharp elbow and the quick tongue. But my pledge to you is, we'll continue to work with you.
"You've got to do what you've got to do in your home states, in terms of politics. But surely we can shuffle that aside sometimes, and focus on our people."
'We've Gotta Stay on the Offense'
Bush will give a speech to the Republican Governors Association (search) Monday night at a $1,000-per-plate dinner.
Giving the country a sneak-peek at his Monday address, Bush earlier on Monday emphasized a theme that gave him a surge in the polls, promising to smoke out evildoers wherever they may hide. The national security theme is expected to form the foundation of his re-election message.
Bush vowed to "actively pursue" the renewal of the Patriot Act (search).
"Prior to the Patriot Act, the FBI and CIA couldn't communicate on matters of intelligence and yet we're fighting a war against individuals and killers that can hide in our community, hide in dark parts of the world, hide in caves and we need to be able to communicate. It makes no sense to not have those tools to take these killers down," Bush told the National Governors Association (search) at the White House.
"We gotta stay on the offense" against Al Qaeda and preventing future attacks, Bush continued. "Sept. 11  affected my way of thinking when it came to the security of this country."
He also said "the world is better off," with Saddam Hussein in custody and the United States will not "cut and run" before it helps Iraq get back on its feet.
"This is a historic opportunity and this country will not flinch," he said. "I truly believe a free Iraq is going to change the world for the better."
Edwards supported the decision to go to war in Iraq, but opposed the $87 billion to continue military operations and aid in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kerry, who opposed the $87 billion package, supported going to war, but now says he did so based on faulty U.S. intelligence.
Bush will begin running television ads March 4 that will be positive and focus on "steady leadership during times of change."
The campaign argues that there have been $37 million worth of ads run by Democrats thus far in the nomination process. Of that $37 million, $17 million has been dedicated to bashing the president. That $17 million has gone to a total of 12,526 attack ads.
The campaign also will announce in the next few weeks new coalitions to help organize support for the president among veterans, farmers, ranchers and others.
And it will aggressively deliver its message through members of Congress, Republican governors and other supporters. The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for instance, will be in Atlanta on Thursday at a campaign fund-raiser for younger supporters.
Issues on the Homefront
Bush has heard complaints from the governors, in town for their annual meeting, that the war is draining their National Guardsmen supply, a slow economy and his attempts to restrain federal discretionary spending have forced a number of states to raise taxes, which has put a strain on relationships.
Bush said Monday that he hears their concerns on education, welfare reform and the economy, among other things.
Bush said the 5.6 percent unemployment rate isn't bad given the recession, corporate scandal, and war this country's been through and that he'll "vigorously defend" his permanent tax cuts.
Both Kerry and Edwards favor repealing tax cuts for the richest Americans.
Bush also said he'll defend his No Child Left Behind (search) education act, which has received mixed reviews, and promised to further his faith-based initiatives.
Fox News' Jim Angle, Carl Cameron, Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.