Bush swings into full campaign mode in California
U.S. President George W. Bush jump-started his 2004 campaign on Wednesday with his first direct attack on rival John Kerry by name, challenging his record on national security and the economy just 24 hours after congratulating him on locking up the Democratic nomination.
Barnstorming California one day after Kerry won its Democratic primary, the president unleashed his most personal attack to date on the Massachusetts senator, whom the Bush team acknowledges will make a formidable candidate.
He derided Kerry for waffling on important issues during two decades in Congress, and warned that he would roll back tax cuts critical to economic growth.
"I've got news for the Washington crowd: America has gone beyond that way of thinking and we're not going back," Bush told a Los Angeles fund-raiser.
With Kerry now squarely in his sights, Bush shifted strategy in just 24 hours. He called Kerry on Tuesday to congratulate him on scoring coast-to-coast primary victories. "He thought it was a nice gesture," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said of the call.
By Wednesday night, Bush was lashing out at Kerry for the first time by name, kicking off what promises to be a bitter eight-month election battle.
"He (Kerry) spent two decades in Congress; he's built up quite a record. In fact, Sen. Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue," he said.
He rebuked Kerry for saying the war on terrorism was less of a military operation than an intelligence and law enforcement operation. And he questioned Kerry's strategy on the economy, saying, "Empty talk about jobs and economic isolation won't get anyone hired."
"I'm ready for this campaign," Bush declared.
Stepping up the attack, the first television commercials of his reelection campaign + casting Bush as a tried and tested leader in challenging times + will begin airing on Thursday in at least 16 important battleground states.
Bush hoped to shore up his conservative base during his two-day swing through the state, which is at the epicenter of an election-year debate over gay marriage.
He addressed the thorny issue indirectly on Wednesday by saying, "We will not stand for judges who undermine democracy by legislating from the bench and try to remake the culture of America by court order."
Bush has cited the flurry of same-sex weddings in San Francisco in his decision to seek a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage.
Bush also used a Los Angeles conference to tout his efforts to funnel federal funds to religious charities that provide social services.
California is the nation's single biggest electoral prize, and Bush made clear he would not cede the state to Kerry.
"By electing (Republican) Arnold Schwarzenegger, the voters of California have shown that no party can take this state for granted," Bush said, adding: "The vice president and I are going to be spending some quality time in the state of California."
Democrat Al Gore won the state handily in 2000.
After months on the defensive over Iraq, job growth and his military record, Bush has plunged wholeheartedly into the campaign fray.
"My opponent," Bush said of Kerry, "hasn't offered much in the way of strategies to win the war (on terrorism), or policies to expand our economy. So far, all we hear from that side is a lot of old bitterness and partisan anger."
The president has already raised about $150 million for his re-election campaign, and at a Los Angeles fund-raiser on Wednesday, he raised $800,000 more. A second fund-raiser at a Beverly Hills mansion brought in another $3.5 million for fellow Republicans.
Bush's goal is to raise $170 million to saturate the airwaves with commercials designed to both bolster his image and try to create doubts about Kerry.
"John Kerry will be a formidable candidate. He's successfully run for re-election many times. He's a skilled debater and with a closely divided electorate, we can't take anything for granted," said a senior Bush campaign official.