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Bush shifts gear, speaks of vision for second term

Answering critics, he cites plans for education, taxes

WASHINGTON -- Just one week before his Democratic rival will receive his party's nomination, President Bush last night offered the first outlines of what his own presidency would look like if he wins a second term, citing plans for changes in education standards and the tax code and seeking to dampen criticism that he has not offered a vision for how a Bush presidency would look if it continues to 2008.

''During the next four years, we will spread opportunity to every corner of this fine country," Bush said, saying he will work to eliminate junk lawsuits, impose higher standards in public high schools, and lower taxes.

The evening speech, delivered before more than 6,000 Republicans at a $23 million fund-raiser for congressional candidates, was billed as a positive shift in tone for the president little more than 100 days before the ballots are cast. But Bush, whose campaign has spent much of the spring and summer trying to define Senator John F. Kerry as someone less capable of leading the country, devoted at least as much time to criticizing his Democratic opponent as to promoting his second-term plans.

Despite signs the economy is improving, Bush said, Kerry and his running mate, Senator John Edwards, ''somehow conclude that the sky is falling," in contrast to the president's own optimistic outlook.

''Whether their message is delivered with a frown or a smile, it is the same old pessimism," Bush said. ''And to cheer us up, they propose higher taxes, more federal spending, and economic isolationism."

Although Bush campaign aides had indicated that the speech would provide the details about his second-term agenda, the president steered away from specifics -- a sign of some of the constraints he faces given the soaring federal budget deficit and extensive military engagements overseas. Nor did Bush's remarks spell out which programs would be his top priority, or how he would implement them, further evidence that his advisers are still sorting out his agenda platform with just over a month until the Republican convention in New York.

Bush, who ran his first presidential campaign on a set of concrete promises, has spent most of the reelection race so far repeating themes from 2000 and the first year of his presidency: national security, the economy, faith-based initiatives, the fight against terrorists. At the same time, Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, and other Republican leaders have been critical of Kerry's positions and in a series of TV ads have attempted to paint the Massachusetts senator as a politician who frequently changes positions and adheres to liberal precepts.

In campaigning this spring and summer, Bush has not trumpeted ambitious new goals or even revived many old ones, such as catching terrorist leader Osama bin Laden or sending astronauts to land on Mars.

White House advisers originally said they were intentionally withholding the second-term agenda, seeking to let the suspense mount leading up to the Republican convention next month and to inject fresh issues into the campaign just as the public starts paying serious attention around Labor Day. They said it would be pointless to articulate new positions at this point, when they would be drowned out by the upcoming Democratic convention.

But in the meantime, Bush has accused Kerry of lacking a coherent vision, opening the door to questions about the president's own sparse campaign platform.

Facing repeated questions from reporters and political surrogates about what the second term of a Bush administration would look like, Bush campaign advisers pointed to last night's speech as an early clue of an agenda that will be laid out more fully in August, when Bush plans to travel the country promoting his message after his rivals' convention.

To some Republicans, Bush's lack of a message now is a sign of his success: Although there are several pieces of unfinished business from the last campaign, including an energy bill stuck in Congress, the president essentially accomplished his earlier goals in 2001 with the passage of $1.3 trillion in tax cuts and the No Child Left Behind Act, intended to heighten public education standards.

Both items are now the subject of debate in the presidential race, with Kerry saying he would eliminate some of the tax cuts for wealthier taxpayers to pay for other initiatives and many educators saying the public schools bill has failed partly for lack of funding.

Last night, Kerry advisers were quick to pounce on Bush's speech, which had been portrayed in advance as an early version of the broader agenda speech he will begin delivering later this summer.

''In an extreme makeover, George Bush now says he's ceasing his unprecedented negative campaign and turning positive," Chad Clanton, a Kerry spokesman, said in a statement issued even before Bush spoke. ''Voters are still waiting for him to articulate an agenda for the future. But the real question is: Can the middle class afford four more years of the Bush agenda?"

Ushered into the dinner to the sound of the ''Star-Spangled Banner" played on harmonica by musician John Popper of Blues Traveler, Bush assured his supporters that he is on his way to reelection.

''There are a little over 100 days until a historic election and the campaigns are hitting full swing," Bush said. ''Everywhere I go, the crowds are big, the enthusiasm is high, the signs are good. We are on our way to victory."

''My opponent has been spending some time with his base as well," Bush said. ''At a recent gala with his Hollywood friends, evidently things got a little out of hand," he said, referring to an event in New York two weeks ago in which comedian Whoopi Goldberg made a crude pun on Bush's name.

''My name came up a few times," Bush continued. ''And now the senator refuses to release a tape of that whole enchanted evening. Could be his friends . . . actually embarrassed themselves and the candidate?" The audience cheered. Then, Bush added that he had a ''different theory" about Kerry's refusal to hand over the tape -- that it shows ''all those unnamed foreign leaders" Kerry once said support him over Bush in the election.

''Now he has a running mate," Bush said. ''Some people say that Senator Edwards was chosen in part because of his boyish good looks. After all, People magazine once named John Edwards the sexiest politician. One of my administration's great goals for a new term is to get Dick Cheney on that list."

After praising the turnaround in the economy, Bush said the goal is now to ''move forward and make America even more job-friendly" through continued low taxes and an effort to open new markets overseas.

He pressed for Congress to pass a ''comprehensive energy plan to make American more energy-independent," and described the threat of frivolous lawsuits as an impediment to small entrepreneurs.

''You cannot be pro-small business and pro-trial lawyer at the same time," Bush said. ''You have to choose. My opponent made a choice, and he put him on the ticket."

Bush was relatively silent on big, new foreign policy goals, instead reiterating his pride in the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and urging an effort to dig out the roots of terrorism.

If the president did not address the potential for future wars -- no new threats of invasion were issued, despite some critics' fears of an attack on Iran or Syria -- it was because he does not intend to change course dramatically, said Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, a Republican.

''The president is known for bold steps, but I think the key here is leadership that you can trust, someone who's clear, consistent, and firm.

''I don't expect a new Bush agenda or a new Bush vision," Coleman said.

Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at akornblut@globe.com.

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