President Bush has drawn a line in the sand.
Mr. Bush's hard-hitting speech in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. on Wednesday made his strategy for the remainder of the campaign crystal clear: a rousing, no-retreat defense of the Iraq war and a harsh critique of John Kerry that focuses on his Democratic rival's perceived weaknesses on both foreign and domestic issues.
"You can't win a war you don't believe in fighting," Mr. Bush said. "In Iraq, Senator Kerry has a strategy of retreat."
Kerry has pressed the president to acknowledge that errors were made in Iraq, but Mr. Bush's speech signaled that he will mount an uncompromising defense of the administration's Iraq policy in the closing days of the campaign.
The speech bristled with new zingers that laid out in harsh and personal terms why Mr. Bush thinks Kerry is unfit to be commander in chief. On the domestic front, the president relied on a classic conservative rhetoric to paint Kerry as a tax-and-spend liberal.
Greeted with cheers of "four more years," it was the kind of performance that Bush partisans wish he had turned in at last week's debate against Kerry.
Two days before his next debate with his Democratic rival, Mr. Bush came out shooting in a bid to take control of the campaign agenda, said Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant in Sacramento, Calif.
Mr. Bush was eager to keep the campaign discourse focused on his perceived strength, national security, Madrid said. A tough new speech was "the way to keep it at the forefront," he said.
Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said Mr. Bush's speech was an effort to limit the political damage inflicted by his lackluster debate performance.
"The president tried to redo the debate from last week by giving a speech full of untruths he couldn't say on stage with John Kerry because he knew Kerry would knock them down," Singer said. "George Bush needs to get real with the American people and start telling the truth."
In his speech, the president drilled more deeply into Kerry's record than he had previously on the stump, unearthing statements the Democrat had made in his first run for the House more than three decades ago.
Among them: Kerry's contention in 1972 that the United Nations should bless most American military engagements. Kerry this year disavowed the comment, saying it was the expression of a disillusioned 27-year-old man newly returned from combat in the Vietnam War.
"Now, he's changed his mind," Mr. Bush said at a campaign rally. "But it is a window into his thinking."
That line served three long-standing Bush aims: It was fresh meat for his conservative backers suspicious of the United Nations, more fodder for his claim that Kerry is a flip-flopper, and it sought to persuade voters that Kerry would be soft on national security.
"This mind-set will paralyze America in a dangerous world," the president said.
In a campaign that appears increasingly to hinge on war and terrorism, Bush sought to dismantle his opponent's national-security credentials.
In his 48-minute address, Mr. Bush ratcheted up his rhetoric by warning that the Democrat had left a "record of weakness." Later, to emphasize the point, Bush said Kerry had a "history of weakness."
Twenty-seven days before the election, his rival became "Senator Kerry" in Wednesday's speech, as opposed to the depersonalized "my opponent" Mr. Bush had previously preferred.
Mr. Bush seemed to enjoy the exercise of leveling new attacks as much as he seemed to dislike Thursday's debate with Kerry.
He was energized by a crowd of some 1,000 fervent supporters in an art-deco theater packed to its gilded balcony. Reading from a prepared text, Mr. Bush chuckled to himself as he delivered his cutting new lines.
He shook his head to convey disbelief as he read the charges against Kerry. Bush thumped an open palm against his lectern as he declared: "The world is better off with Saddam Hussein sitting in a prison cell."
After reciting a laundry list of Kerry's criticisms on Iraq, Mr. Bush said: "You hear all that and you can understand why somebody would make a face." It was Bush's way of explaining his debate scowls and looks of annoyance.
His friendly audience laughed, leaped to their feet and gave him a standing ovation, led, among others, by political aide Karl Rove, sitting in the third row.
On the domestic front, the president cast Kerry as an ineffective, tax-and-spend liberal.
Noting that only five of Massachusetts's senator's bills had become law, he launched new broadsides at Kerry's domestic agenda.
Repeating the new speech at a second rally in Farmington Hills Mich., Mr. Bush warned that Kerry's health care plan amounted to "Hillary Care," a reference to former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's failed effort in 1993 to expand coverage.
Mr. Bush said Kerry had voted 274 times to "break the federal budget limits," not mentioning that budget deficits have mushroomed to record-breaking levels during his administration.
During his lengthy remarks on Iraq, Bush also avoided mention of a report presented Wednesday by the top U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, Charles Duelfer, who concluded Saddam Hussein did not vigorously pursue a program to develop weapons of mass destruction after international inspectors left Baghdad in 1998. The finding contradicted prewar statements by Bush and top administration officials.
Bush also avoided references to the rising U.S. death toll in Iraq, which stood above 1,060 Wednesday.