WASHINGTON - Opening a more aggressive phase in his re-election campaign, President Bush warned last night that a Democrat in the White House would jeopardize America's economic health and its defense against terrorism.
With his poll numbers sliding and Democratic challengers attacking his policies, the president shifted into a combative campaign stance for the first time, while unveiling themes that will form the foundation of his general-election bid.
Addressing an enthusiastic audience at a Republican Governors Association fund-raiser, Bush cast himself as an unwavering defender of national security. He said Democrats could not be entrusted to safeguard America.
With Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bush took a direct shot at front-runner Kerry, without naming him, as someone who flip-flops whenever convenient.
Democratic candidates "are an interesting group with diverse opinions," Bush said. "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. And that's just one senator from Massachusetts."
The president took his more aggressive stance last night, after weeks of pounding by Democratic rivals. Some Republican allies had warned that Bush needed to fight back and seize the political agenda. His re-election campaign is to roll out its first television ads next week, earlier than planned.
Bush called for the tax cuts he pushed through Congress to be made permanent. He argued that Democrats would prefer to roll back tax cuts and expand government programs of questionable benefit.
"Our opponents have not offered much in the way of strategies to win the war or policies to expand our economy," he said. "So far, all we hear is a lot of old bitterness and partisan anger. Anger is not an agenda for the future."
Through the return of tax dollars, "the American people have used their money far better than the federal government would have," the president said.
Bush tested his sharper message while sharing a stage with the nation's Republican governors, many of whom will play important roles in carrying states with large numbers of electoral votes, such as Florida, Texas, New York and California.
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who sat next to first lady Laura Bush during the speech, said he believed Bush's message of "empowerment, freedom and a responsible culture" would resonate with voters.
Ehrlich said he could tell Bush was eager to start swinging. "He's been champing at the bit," the governor said.
With more than $140 million raised for his re-election effort, Bush will doubtless have the money he needs to carry his message to voters. But wavering popular opinion has forced his campaign staff to start refining that message sooner than planned.
"The president always said that when the choice was clear, he would get energized," said Ken Mehlman, the Bush-Cheney campaign manager. "In the face of terrorism abroad, their approach is uncertain and tentative. And in the face of a growing recovery, they would set us back by raising taxes."
The president and his campaign team believe it serves their interests to portray the November election as carrying enormous consequences at home and abroad.
"Great events will turn on this election," he said. "The man who sits in the Oval Office will set the course of the war on terror and the direction of our economy. The security and prosperity of America are at stake."
In office for more than three years, Bush tried last night to portray himself as an opponent of career Washington politicians and of big government - by contrast with Kerry, the longtime senator.
"We'll hear them make a lot of promises over the next eight months. And listen closely, because there is a theme," Bush said. "Every promise will increase the power of politicians and bureaucrats over your income, over your retirement, over your health care and over your life. It's the same old Washington mindset. They'll give the orders, and you'll pay the bills."
In defending the war in Iraq, Bush said that his administration had hardly been alone in believing that Saddam Hussein posed a grave threat to the United States.
"Members of Congress looked at the intelligence and they saw a danger," he said. "The United Nations Security Council looked at the intelligence and it saw a danger. The previous administration and Congress looked at the intelligence and made regime change in Iraq the policy of our country."
For those who didn't support removing Hussein by force, Bush said, "maybe they were hoping he'd lose the next Iraqi election."
Bush also tried to blunt a call for a return to more multilateral decision-making on global threats, one of the themes of Democrats' attacks against him.
"Our opponents say they approve of bold action in the world, but only if no other government disagrees," he said.
The president said he prefers, when possible, to use a broad international alliance to fight threats to America and other nations. But, he said, "America must never outsource national security decisions to the leaders of other governments."
Afterward, Ehrlich said he thought the message would play well with voters. "Leaders don't need permission slips to lead," he said.
Bush's speech was well-received in the ballroom at the Washington Convention Center, where corporate donors and lobbyists paid $1,000 each toward the governors association campaign committee.
John Kane, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, called the address "a very balanced speech," and said Bush "spoke for all Americans, not special-interest groups."
The time was right, Kane said, for Bush to assume a more aggressive posture.
"We don't have a primary battle," he said, "but we don't want to sit out there and be a punching bag for Kerry."