Promising a "spirited" presidential campaign, President Bush kicked off his re-election effort by ridiculing his chief rival and casting the November election as a choice between steadfast leadership and weakness in the face of danger.
Dropping any pretense that he's above partisan politics, Mr. Bush took his first direct swipe at Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Bush, speaking to a friendly audience of Republican governors, said the Democratic field offers diverse opinions on a host of issues.
"For tax cuts and against them. ... For liberating Iraq and opposed to it," he said, ticking off several other examples. Then he delivered his punch line: "And that's just one senator from Massachusetts."
The speech at the Washington Convention Center signaled the start of a much more aggressive effort by Mr. Bush to win a second White House term. In another development, aides booked airtime for the first wave of Bush campaign ads beginning March 4.
CBS Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts reports that the Bush election speech was not the way Mr. Bush wanted to do it -- jumping into the race not even knowing who he's running against. But his hand was forced by sliding poll numbers and complaints from members of his own party that he was allowing the Democratic candidates frame the debate.
The speech, reports Roberts, is part of an initial strategy to -- first of all -- get some much-needed attention, and then contrast the President's vision for a second term with what his campaign calls the 'backward looking failed policies' of the Democrats.
CBS News Anchor Dan Rather will moderate a debate among the four Democratic presidential contenders on Sunday, Feb. 29, at 11:00 AM ET. Watch a live Webcast on CBSNews.com.
"Our opponents have not offered much in the way of strategies to win the war or policies to expand our economy. So far, all we hear is a lot of old bitterness and partisan anger. Anger is not an agenda for the future of America," Mr. Bush said. "We are taking on the big issues with strength and resolve and determination - and we stand ready to lead this nation another four years."
Mr. Bush, who had planned to stay above the fray until Democrats selected their presidential nominee, accelerated his campaign timetable after being forced on the defensive by criticism over his handling of the economy and the war in Iraq, as well as questions about his military service during the Vietnam War. Mr. Bush served stateside in the Texas Air National Guard.
On the economy, Mr. Bush said voters would decide between "tax relief that is moving this economy forward" or "putting the burden of higher taxes back on the American people." Both Kerry and his closest rival, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, have called for rolling back Bush tax cuts for people earning $200,000 and over.
Mr. Bush also cast the election as a referendum on his performance as commander in chief, asserting that Democrats can't be trusted to protect the country from terrorism. He ridiculed war opponents.
"They now agree that the world is better off with Saddam out of power. They just didn't support removing Saddam from power," Mr. Bush said to laughter from the audience. "Maybe they were hoping he would lose the next Iraqi election."
Mr. Bush said voters face "a choice between an America that leads the world with strength and confidence, or an America that is uncertain in the face of danger."
Anticipating Mr. Bush's remarks, Kerry told supporters in New York that Mr. Bush is running scared.
"He's going to lay out what he calls his vision," Kerry said of Mr. Bush's speech. "I think it is extraordinary that four years into this administration we're finally going to get what this president calls his vision for the nation."
Mr. Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, said Monday that the president began filming campaign commercials about two weeks ago in the White House residence.
The ads will air on cable TV around the country and on network stations in competitive markets, with the slogan: "Steady Leadership in Times of Change." They begin airing March 4, just two days after the wave of primary elections that is likely to cement the Democrats' pick to challenge Mr. Bush.
Mr. Bush's approval ratings has dipped around 50 percent in recent polls — some in the high 40s.
Mr. Bush, his loyalists and their relatives were maintaining their heavy fund-raising efforts this week. Vice President Dick Cheney was picking up campaign cash Monday in Kansas and Minnesota.
The president was heading to Kentucky and North Carolina to raise cash Thursday, the same day Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was raising money for his brother in Atlanta. And Lynne Cheney, the vice president's wife, was heading to Toledo, Ohio for re-election money on Friday.