New York, N.Y. — (AP) - President Bush picked apart John Kerry's record on the Iraq war and tax cuts Thursday night, and summoned the nation toward victory over terrorism and economic security at home.
"Nothing will hold us back," he said in a Republican National Convention acceptance speech that launched his fall re-election campaign.
"We are staying on the offensive - striking terrorists abroad - so we do not have to face them here at home," Bush said in a prime-time address not far from Ground Zero of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. "And we will prevail."
"Four more years, four more years," the delegates chanted as Bush strode - alone - onto a podium in the middle of a heavily fortified convention hall. His introduction was a video that stirred memories of Sept. 11 - and credited him with "the heart of a president."
"I believe this nation wants steady, consistent, principled leadership, and that is why, with your help, we will win this election," he said.
First lady Laura Bush joined her husband on stage as he finished his speech, followed by Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife and extended families. On cue, thousands of red, white and blue balloons floated down from the ceiling, mixing with confetti and colored streamers in a made-for-television spectacle.
Bush's speech marked the beginning of a two-month campaign sprint to Election Day, and Kerry clearly couldn't wait. In a ferocious counterattack after a week of GOP convention-week criticism, he called the wartime commander in chief and Vice President Dick Cheney unfit to lead the nation.
"I'm not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who have refused to serve when they could have, and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq," he said in remarks prepared for a midnight campaign appearance in Ohio. Kerry won five military medals in the Vietnam War; Bush was stateside in the National Guard and Cheney's five draft-era deferments kept him out of the service.
The Bush-Cheney campaign readied a new general election advertising campaign to build on elements in his convention speech. In the commercials, Bush vows to "spread ownership and opportunity," "make our economy more job friendly" and help lower health care costs.
Locked in a tight race, the president underscored his differences with Kerry on issues of war, tax cuts, values and more. At the same time, he used terms less incendiary than those wielded by Cheney or Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., from the convention podium Wednesday night.
Bush said Kerry and Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards had both voted against $87 billion in aid for "troops doing battle in Afghanistan and Iraq." "When asked to explain his vote, the senator (Kerry) said, 'I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.' Then he said he was "proud of that vote."
Kerry has explained his vote on the $87 billion appropriation for the Iraq war by saying he voted for the original bill, when the cost would have been covered by a rollback of taxes on the wealthiest Americans. He voted against the final version when that tax provision was removed.
The president said Kerry has proposed "more than $2 trillion in new federal spending so far, and that's a lot, even for a senator from Massachusetts."
Bush added: "To pay for that spending, he is running on a platform of increasing taxes - and that's the kind of a promise a politician usually keeps."
I believe this nation wants steady, consistent, principled leadership, and that is why, with your help, we will win this election.
Contrary to Bush's characterization, Kerry's economic plan calls for rolling back the Bush-era tax cuts only on the top 2 percent of wage-earners, while leaving the rest in effect.
The public opinion polls made the race a toss-up as Bush stepped to a custom-made, theater-in-the-round style podium at Madison Square Garden, the country divided along political lines that shaped the Electoral College strategy for him and Kerry alike.
By all accounts, Bush is safely ahead in customary GOP strongholds across the South and Great Plains states, with Kerry similarly situated in Democratic base states from New York to Illinois to California.
That left about 20 states to contest, across nine weeks of personal campaigning, presidential and vice presidential debates and more than $100 million in campaign advertising - the White House the prize.
Bush offered Reagan-style optimism in a time of national testing, mixed with self-deprecating humor. "Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger which in Texas we call 'walking,"' he joked.
Referring to the remnants of the World Trade Center site four miles distant, he said, "Here buildings fell, and here a nation rose. ... And all of this has confirmed one belief beyond doubt: Having come this far, our tested and confident nation can achieve anything."
Bush mentioned cultural issues where he and Kerry differ - abortion rights and a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage among them, and legislation that the senator opposed and Democratic President Clinton signed to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
"If you gave a speech, as my opponent did, calling the Reagan presidency eight years of 'moral darkness,' then you may be a lot of things, but the candidate of conservative values is not one of them," Bush said.
He called anew for making his tax cuts permanent - a goal that even some Republicans balk at in an era of record federal deficits. Beyond that, Bush pledged a second-term effort to reform and simplify the tax code, part of a broader effort to appeal to millions of Americans anxious over the economic security of their families.
In a return to the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism that marked his 2000 election campaign, the Republican pledged changes in health coverage, pensions and more. He renewed his call for an overhaul of Social Security that would allow individuals to invest some of their payroll taxes on their own.
He also said he would double the number of individuals eligible for the government's main job training program and create American opportunity zones that offer tax relief and other incentives to new businesses.
He outlined plans for steps that he has had trouble pushing through a divided Congress - changes in comp time and flex time legislation opposed by organized labor, many Democrats and some moderate Republicans, and caps on medical malpractice awards bitterly resisted by the trial lawyers, political benefactors of Democrats.
"We have fought the terrorists across the earth - not for pride, not for power, but because the lives of our citizens are at stake," said the commander in chief, whose decision to invade Iraq has been a drag in public opinion polls.
"Generations will know if we kept our faith and kept our word. Generations will know if we seized this moment and used it to build a future of safety and peace. The freedom of many and the future security of our nation now depend on us."
Polls show the president receives high marks from voters for his leadership qualities and the job he has done fighting the war on terror, although his handling of the war in Iraq and the economy is more problematic.
Republicans neared the end of a four-day run as State Supreme Court Justice John Cataldo ordered the city to release 470 protesters, some of whom have been in jail for nearly three days. The judge also fined the city $1,000 for every protester held past the deadline he set for their release. Authorities had blamed the sheer volume of detainees - more than 1,700 arrests have been made - for the slow pace of court processing.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)