WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) laid out a game plan for his re-election campaign — saying that America must keep moving forward on the economy and the war on terrorism.
Bush said the choice — domestically — is between extending his tax cuts (search), or choking off the economic recovery. But the foundation of his re-election platform is national security, he said during a speech on Monday night.
"Come November, the voters are going to have a very clear choice. It's 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. 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 at the $1,000-a-plate fund-raising dinner hosted by the Republican Governors' Association.
In what has become an early theme of the re-election campaign, Bush was optimistic, while calling the Democrats pessimistic.
"So far, all we hear is a lot of old bitterness and partisan anger. Anger is not an agenda for the future of America. We are taking on the big issues with strength, and resolve, and determination — and we stand ready to lead this nation another four years," Bush said.
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."
Kerry said Bush's plunge into campaign mode signaled the president is nervous.
"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 in Queens, N.Y.
Although Bush did not mention the Massachusetts senator by name, the Bush-Cheney campaign believes the math favors Kerry, who has won all but two of the Democratic caucuses and primaries, as the likely nominee to go head-to-head with Bush in November.
"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.
Edwards also seemed to be on Bush's mind. In what may have been a veiled dig at the former trial lawyer, Bush angrily urged Republican governors to support limiting medical malpractice awards.
"No one has ever been healed by a frivolous lawsuit," he said.
Earlier on Monday, Bush 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.
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.
Kerry said on Monday that he would refrain from running ads attacking the president and would also limit ad spending if Bush agreed to do the same.
"I would certainly agree to run not one negative advertisement if they'd agree to run no negative advertising," Kerry told a local TV station after a campaign event in New York City. "But I doubt very much that they'd do that," he added.
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, slowing the 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.
Fighting to Take on the President
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 it's 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 re-litigate 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."
Fox News' Jim Angle, Peter Brownfeld, Carl Cameron, Wendell Goler, Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.