Bush eager to challenge Democrats on domestic issues


WASHINGTON -- President Bush stopped within a whisker of announcing for re-election yesterday during a spirited Rose Garden appearance in which he declared that he is eager to take on Democratic charges that he cares more about foreign policy than domestic issues.

The only thing that might keep him from running for a second term, Mr. Bush told reporters, would be "a health problem -- and I don't have one," adding that he feels "like a million bucks."

Previewing an election campaign that is to be the subject of a strategy session this morning at Camp David, the president said he intends to prove to the American people that he is working not only for world peace but for a domestic agenda that lacks only cooperation from congressional Democrats to be successful.

Mr. Bush insisted that people who contend that his policies show more compassion for the impoverished overseas than the downtrodden at home are part of a concerted plan to "tear down the president -- otherwise very nice senators now reverting to out-of-character tactics."

"But, listen, we haven't begun to fight on that front," the president said.

"We've got excellent programs, and the only way when the other party controls the Congress is to defeat some of their lousy ideas and then keep saying to the American people, 'Have your congressman try the president's ideas.'

"I'm getting fired up thinking about it, getting a little ahead of where I want to be now," the president said. "But we've got a good message, and it will get out there."

Mr. Bush said that he does not intend to announce re-election plans formally until early next year and that he plans to take a monthlong vacation in Kennebunkport, Maine, before charging back into the political fray with Congress this fall -- "after I'm rested up a little."

This morning's brain-storming session at Camp David, to which about 30 of Mr. Bush's Washington-based political advisers have been invited, is expected to examine how the president can keep the Democrats from gaining ground on the domestic front, as well as a full range of other strategic and organizational questions.

No decisions of any kind are expected, the president said.

He said he felt it was necessary to begin having such meetings so he doesn't "project a sense of arrogance or unconcern about the tough task that lies ahead."

Even as Mr. Bush was speaking during a sweltering midday press conference in the Rose Garden, the Democratic-led Congress was handing him a domestic hot potato in the form of legislation that would extend unemployment benefits an additional 20 weeks.

The president sidestepped the question yesterday of how he would handle the measure, saying he preferred a scaled-down alternative proposed unsuccessfully by congressional Republicans.

Mr. Bush defended his diplomatic diligence -- his trip this week to the Soviet Union following a tour of London, Greece and Turkey last month -- by saying it had not only resulted in the signing of a long-awaited treaty with the Soviets to reduce strategic nuclear arms but had led to two new opportunities for peace: in the Middle East and in the dispute over Cyprus.

"I am not going to lose my interest in world peace, and I don't think the American people want me to," he said.

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