- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 21, 2004

ORLANDO, Fla. — President Bush yesterday used his first official campaign rally to criticize Sen. John Kerry for claiming foreign endorsements and supporting a 50-cents-a-gallon gasoline tax.

“The other day here in Florida he claimed some important endorsements from overseas,” Mr. Bush told 15,000 cheering partisans. “He won’t tell us the name of the foreign admirers.

“That’s OK,” he added. “Either way, I’m not too worried, because I’m going to keep my campaign right here in America.”

The crowd went wild, repeatedly interrupting the president’s 42-minute speech at the Orange County Convention Center with chants of “four more years.” Mr. Bush responded by vowing several times to secure a second term.

Although the president waded into the political fray weeks ago and has been raising money for his re-election for months, yesterday marked the first time he staged a bona fide campaign rally.

Mr. Bush took the stage and embraced his wife in a scene that was reminiscent of the Republican National Convention of 2000. He flashed the audience the three-fingered salute to signify “W,” his middle initial and nickname.

Audience members waved American flags and roared their approval, almost drowning out warm-up remarks by Mrs. Bush and the president’s brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

“There’s a big election coming up and I thought I’d come down for a little spring training,” the president said. “We’re going to make Florida a part of a great nationwide victory this November.”

As part of an aggressive grass-roots effort to turn out voters, the campaign arranged for buses and vans to take attendees on a voter registration drive immediately after yesterday’s speech. Again and again, Mr. Bush implored them to get fellow Floridians to the polls.

But the president spent much of his speech heaping ridicule on Mr. Kerry as part of a coordinated effort to define the Massachusetts Democrat as a tax-raising, flip-flopping liberal who is soft on terrorism.

“Senator Kerry voted for the Patriot Act, for NAFTA, for the No Child Left Behind Act, and for the use of force in Iraq,” the president said. “Now he opposes the Patriot Act, NAFTA, the No Child Left Behind Act, and the liberation of Iraq.

“My opponent clearly feels strongly about each of these issues,” he added. “So strongly that one position is never just enough.”

Then the president gleefully cited a remark Mr. Kerry made on Tuesday that is destined to be repeated by the Bush campaign for months.

“Someone asked Senator Kerry why he voted against the $87 billion funding bill to help our troops in Iraq,” Mr. Bush said. “Here’s what he said: ‘I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.’”

The president added mischievously: “That sure clears things up, doesn’t it?”

By couching his criticisms in humor, Mr. Bush hopes to reinforce his image as sunny and upbeat while portraying Mr. Kerry as dour and humorless. He called the Democrats the party of “bitterness and partisan anger. Anger is not an agenda for the future of America.”

“There are some economic pessimists who refuse to accept good news about our economy, but I’m optimistic,” he added. “We will take on the big issues with optimism, and resolve and determination.”

Taking advantage of the fact that Mr. Kerry was in the middle of a five-day vacation, the president tried to turn the issue of rising gas prices against the Democrat. Crude oil prices are at a 13-year high and the average cost of a gallon of gasoline is $1.72.

“Senator Kerry is one of the main opponents of tax relief in the United States Congress,” the president said. “He also supported a 50-cent-a-gallon tax on gasoline.

“He wanted you to pay all that money at the pump, and he wouldn’t even throw in a free car wash,” he added.

Turning serious, Mr. Bush warned that his opponent’s support for higher taxes could wreck the economic expansion. He also reminded the audience that Mr. Kerry sees the struggle against terrorism as a matter of law enforcement, not war.

“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.”

From Idaho where he vacationing, Mr. Kerry responded to the president’s statements, saying that 3 million jobs have been lost during Mr. Bush’s term. He described it as the worst economic record since the Great Depression.

“The Bush economic policy has failed,” the Massachusetts senator said. “It’s time for America to move in a new direction.

“It’s remarkable that this president doesn’t understand the basic economic assumption that a jobless economy means nothing to the millions of Americans looking for work or wondering where their next paycheck will come from,” he said.

Mr. Kerry will return to his campaign schedule Tuesday.

This story is based in part on wire-service reports.

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