GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- President Bush, eager to undercut his newly nominated rival, bounded back onto the campaign trail yesterday with a fresh offensive focused on Senator John F. Kerry's record in the US Senate, accusing the Massachusetts Democrat of having "no signature achievements" despite a long career in government.
Bush lashed out at his opponent from the minute he hit the campaign trail, ridiculing Kerry's spending priorities and celebrity ties even before he introduced his own Republican guests at a rally in Missouri. "They're going to raise your taxes. We're not," Bush said within the first minute of his stump speech after a week of silence during the Democratic convention. "They somehow believe the heart and soul of America can be found in Hollywood."
But Bush offered a more substantive rebuttal to Kerry's convention appearance as well, accusing his rival of embracing changes in intelligence on the campaign trail after failing to address the subject during years on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"After 19 years in the United States Senate, my opponent has had thousands of votes, but very few signature achievements," Bush told an audience in Springfield, Mo., yesterday morning, at the start of a two-day trip. In Grand Rapids a few hours later, Bush said of Kerry: "During eight years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, he voted to cut the intelligence budget. Yet, he had no record of reforming America's intelligence-gathering capability."
Kerry campaign officials vehemently dispute Bush's argument, saying Kerry's support in 1995 for cutting a secret, unspent fund was also backed by Republicans. Democratic officials said Bush is attempting to deflect attention from his own failure to restructure the nation's intelligence systems since the Sept. 11 attacks. "They don't have a record to run on, so all they can do is attack," Kerry said.
Recommendations from the 9/11 panel -- especially the creation of a national intelligence director and a centralized terrorism task force -- have become the subject of debate on the campaign trail, with Kerry challenging Bush to take immediate action on them.
By homing in on Kerry's record, Bush hoped to underscore one of his latest campaign mottoes: "Results matter." Campaign advisers said the new approach is designed to highlight the Bush administration's accomplishments, such as the tax cuts and the war in Iraq, while emphasizing Kerry's relative silence about his legislative record, especially during the convention that ended Thursday.
Bush's campaign swing, dubbed the "Heart and Soul of America Tour," introduced several new slogans and twists to earlier attacks on Kerry, who formally accepted his party nomination the day before. But Bush shed little light on his own second-term agenda, details of which advisers have said will emerge during an aggressive three-week stretch of campaigning in August. That effort will include millions spent on new television advertising to begin airing next week. The Kerry campaign, meanwhile, has suspended ad buys in August to preserve cash until September.
On the trail yesterday, Bush discussed a proposal to allow workers flexibility in their schedules. The central elements of his reelection agenda are still under wraps, however, a point that Democratic officials criticized yesterday. "George Bush's second stump speech in as many weeks still leaves America stumped about what he would do in a second term," Jano Cabrera, communications director of the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement. "For that matter, America is still stumped about how the president's efforts of the last four years have left the country with record deficits, skyrocketing health costs, isolated in the world, and a military stretched so thin that soldiers are being forced to extend their deployments against their will."
Although advisers said the president did not stay awake to watch Kerry's convention speech on Thursday night, Bush played off the Democratic address repeatedly, mocking Kerry for saying there are "complexities" involved in the war in Iraq. Republicans are promising to make Kerry's vote against an $87 billion funding bill for Iraq and Afghanistan earlier this year into a central symbol of their attacks against his voting record, which they say is rife with inconsistencies -- a point Bush hammered as he traveled through two Midwest battleground states.
"[Kerry] said that he was proud that he and his running mate voted against the funding, then he further said: 'The whole thing is a complicated matter,' " Bush said, drawing laughter, before he turned serious. "There's nothing 'complicated' about supporting our troops in combat."
Vice President Dick Cheney, campaigning in Yakima, Wash., echoed the message, saying he and Bush "have some important differences with the folks you saw in Boston this week."
In his convention speech, Kerry did say there was a level of complexity in Iraq, but he made the point in a different context. "I know there are those who criticize me for seeing complexities -- and I do -- because some issues just aren't all that simple," Kerry said. "Saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq doesn't make it so. Saying we can fight a war on the cheap doesn't make it so. And proclaiming mission accomplished certainly doesn't make it so."
Retooling his stump speech, Bush added another turn of phrase, saying that on issues from education to health care to terrorism, the nation is "turning the corner, and we're not turning back."
Both the Kerry and Bush campaigns are angling to present theirs as the most forward-looking team, convinced that voters will be turned off by negative messages.
"In the past few years we've been through a lot together, and we have accomplished a great deal," Bush said during yesterday's appearance at Grand Rapids Community College, which drew a few thousand supporters. "But there's only one reason to look backward at the record, and that is to determine who will lead the nation forward, who can do the job for the American people."
Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at email@example.com.