WASHINGTON -- President Bush, reeling from a six-week barrage of negative news and attacks from Democratic presidential candidates, launched his first direct counterattack of the 2004 campaign last night -- the opening wave of an aggressive Republican effort to shore up Bush's reelection bid and respond to his critics.
As part of its offensive, the Bush campaign also plans to start airing its first advertisements next week, reversing an earlier decision to hold back until the Democratic nomination is settled. Vice President Dick Cheney has been dispatched on a fund-raising tour, taking in a reported $400,000 yesterday.
And in a series of sharp accusations and rebuttals in recent days, Bush advisers laid out their strategy for pursuing Democratic front-runner John F. Kerry, accusing him of hypocrisy and indecision, a weak voting record on defense, and a penchant for raising taxes. Bush himself led the charge last night.
"The other party's nomination battle is still playing out. The candidates are an interesting group, with diverse opinions," Bush told an audience of Republicans at a $1,000-per-person fund-raiser here. "For tax cuts, and against them. For NAFTA, and against NAFTA. For the Patriot Act, and against the Patriot Act. In favor of liberating Iraq, and opposed to it.
"And that's just one senator from Massachusetts," Bush said, drawing laughter and applause.
The speech capped a day of intense exchanges between the Bush and Kerry camps, especially over military service and national defense -- lightning-rod issues that both sides intend to use to their advantage in a potential general election square-off.
Kerry responded to the Bush speech even before it was delivered, homing in on media reports suggesting that Republicans will make an issue of the senator's decision, after two tours of duty in Vietnam, to join the Vietnam Veterans Against the War protest movement.
"They said in laying out what they plan to do, `We're going to attack his activities after the war,' " Kerry said in Queens, N.Y. "That reflects on the service; that was a reflection on me, and what I chose to do. That is making Vietnam itself an issue 34 years later. They have even named their multimillion-dollar television ad `Operation Carpetbombing.' Now you go figure."
Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot said the campaign has "never referred to what it is we will do with advertising in those terms." Asked to clarify the origin of Kerry's comments, the senator's campaign spokeswoman said advisers had heard talk in Republican circles in recent weeks, but did not give specifics.
But by day's end, Kerry had returned to his broad campaign theme -- that Bush is out of touch with reality and no longer can be trusted. "President Bush gave his speech tonight as if the past 3 1/2 years never happened," Kerry said. "But the American people haven't forgotten this president's failed record, because they have to live with it every day. George Bush's credibility is running out with the American people. They want change in America, and I'm running because I am determined to bring that change and put America back on track."
Bush launched the fresh offensive after weeks of dropping poll numbers when compared either with Kerry or Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, data that suggest widespread dissatisfaction with the president as much as enthusiasm for either Democratic rival. Although Bush has a financial advantage, having raised more money than any candidate in history, he also has suffered a spate of negative news, including over the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, his National Guard service during Vietnam, a grand jury inquiry into leaked confidential information about a CIA agent, continuing unemployment in the country, and his State of the Union speech, which was met with disdain even by many Republicans.
Faced with mounting pressure from his allies to respond to Democratic attacks, Bush has dropped his claim that he is too busy tending to the country's business to worry about his reelection -- a point he had made repeatedly even while attending dozens of fund-raisers. Bush officials said harsh rhetoric from the Democratic candidates, especially Kerry, has gone on too long without an equally forceful response.
Saying Bush has suffered a "barrage of negative personal attacks," Racicot said yesterday that the stepped-up campaigning is the result of "millions and millions of dollars spent on ads that are incredibly inaccurate" during the course of the Democratic primary.
Bush is also following up on another long-planned strategy, invoking the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to remind voters what is at stake in this election. He referred specifically to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon no less than five times during last night's speech, on top of numerous references to national security in a broader sense.
Bush also revived a theme from the last campaign, laying out another choice, between anger and optimism. The Democrats, he said, "have not offered much in the way of strategies to win the war or policies to expand the economy."
"We hear a lot of old bitterness and partisan anger," Bush said. "Anger is not an agenda for the future or America."
While fighting back on specific accusations about his voting record, Kerry advisers quietly say that the attacks on his candidacy are helping shape a debate in their favor, raising the subject of military service and Vietnam without Kerry having to do so himself. It also gives Democrats an opportunity to remind supporters of the tactics Bush allies used against Senator Max Cleland, a decorated Vietnam veteran, in his last Senate race, and the whisper campaigns conducted against another Vietnam veteran, Senator John S. McCain, during the Republican primary in 2000.But the Bush campaign also made clear yesterday that it will respond to any attack Kerry makes; after Kerry accused Bush of questioning his patriotism, Racicot held a last-minute conference call with reporters yesterday to deny it, and to outline which exact programs Kerry had voted for in the Senate. "His record on defense and intelligence funding is not defensible," Racicot said.
Patrick Healy of the Globe staff contributed to this report from New York. Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at email@example.com.