Monday, February 23, 2004

President Bush tonight will take aim at political opponents in a speech that signals a “new period of engagement” in response to “the most vicious assault in years by a group of Democrats running for president,” his re-election campaign said.

After months of relentless criticism from candidates battling for the Democratic presidential nomination, tonight’s speech at the Republican Governors Association reception in Washington will signal Mr. Bush’s first major effort to spell out for voters the differences between himself and his challengers, campaign manager Ken Mehlman said last night.

“Instead of the normal process by which the Democrats talk about the differences they have with each other — because they all agree on higher taxes, because they all agree on a weaker national defense — all they have done is attack the president,” Mr. Mehlman said.

The speech comes as the Bush re-election team prepares to air its first round of campaign commercials, a move expected next week.

“Millions of dollars have been spent on anti-Bush ads — $17 million has been spent by the Democrats on ads attacking the president. … What’s now happening is we’re entering a phase where we’re going to correct the record and we’re going to discuss the choices the American people have,” Mr. Mehlman said.

The president has shunned politics throughout the Democratic primary season, vowing to engage only when an opponent had been selected and telling supporters in fund-raisers nationwide that he is “warming up.” But with just eight days until Super Tuesday — when 10 states hold contests and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts likely will wrap up the Democratic nomination — the Bush-Cheney team is ramping up for what will be an eight-month campaign for re-election.

Although Mr. Bush is not expected to identify opponents by name tonight, Mr. Kerry is an obvious target.

“The most negative of the candidates running has been Senator Kerry,” Mr. Mehlman said. “Three-quarters of the money he’s spent has gone to negative ads.”

Top Bush-Cheney officials may refer only to Democratic “opponents,” but they clearly are preparing to face Mr. Kerry in November.

The campaign also has started up a “quick response” unit, with campaign Chairman Marc Racicot yesterday releasing a letter to Mr. Kerry in which he asked the senator “to elevate the remarkably negative tone of your campaign and your party over the past year.”

Mr. Racicot wrote: “We intend to run a campaign on the issues and each candidate’s record on those issues. We hope that in the future you and your surrogates will do the same.”

The campaign will address pressing issues, Mr. Mehlman said, although Mr. Kerry seems to want to make the election about who served more honorably in the Vietnam era. The decorated Navy veteran challenged Mr. Bush on Saturday to a debate on the topic.

“This election is about who today and tomorrow can make sure that in a world where we face the threat of terror, who can keep America safe and, in a new economy, who can keep the momentum going forward of recovery,” the president’s campaign manager said.

Mr. Mehlman said Mr. Bush, whose favorability rating dropped in the polls as newspapers and networks focused on the other party’s candidates, is not speeding up his timetable to engage Democrats. Tonight’s speech is a “natural stepping up” after a year of raising money, building grass-roots networks and developing state plans and organizations, he said.

Bush-Cheney officials said yesterday the campaign will begin running TV ads March 4, regardless of whether the Democratic race is decided. Over the spring and summer, the campaign expects to spend a good amount of the $100 million it has on hand, especially in states that were narrowly divided in the 2000 election.

Campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel said the campaign will begin calling stations today to check ad rates and purchase airtime, but he would not say which markets will be targeted.

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