In Fla., Bush accelerates campaign

President portrays Kerry as weak on terrorism, bent on raising taxes

March 21, 2004|By Mark Silva | Mark Silva,ORLANDO SENTINEL

ORLANDO, Florida - In the first public rally of his campaign, President Bush sharply criticized Democratic rival John Kerry and proclaimed his resolve for the nation's war against terror, an issue expected to be a mainstay of his re-election campaign.

With more than 10,000 people cheering and chanting "four more years," the president staged a show of force yesterday at the Orange County Convention Center - targeting a state that will be hard-fought once again in November.

Bush spoke with bravado against terrorists who threaten world peace. He offered assurances that he will keep America safe and expressed optimism that his tax breaks are reviving a sluggish economy. And he peppered his 42-minute speech with repeated criticism of Kerry, attempting to portray the senator from Massachusetts as a flip-flopper, weak on terrorism and tax-happy.

"There are quiet times in the life of a nation when little is expected of the leaders. This is not one of those times," Bush said. "If America shows weakness and uncertainty in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. This will not happen on my watch."

Here in Florida, which handed Bush the White House, after a Supreme Court-settled battle over a disputed 537-vote margin, the attention that Bush is paying to his re-election is a sign of how close November's vote could be. In his 20th tour of Florida since his election, Bush is focusing on swing-voting Central Florida. To underscore the importance of this area to the campaign, first lady Laura Bush plans to return to Orlando on March 29.

"Mr. President," said Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's younger brother, introducing him Saturday in a cavernous convention hall filled with flag-waving followers. "As you can plainly see, Florida is Bush country."

"This team will not let you down," Jeb Bush told his brother. "After this rally, many people are going to go door to door, register voters, and from here to Election Day we will work our heart out to see that Florida goes to George Bush."

The president opened his speech with a reply for Kerry's remark, made during a campaign tour of Florida last week, that he had heard from "more leaders" of foreign nations encouraging him to defeat Bush.

"The other day, here in Florida, he claimed some important endorsements from overseas," Bush said. "He won't tell us the name of the foreign admirers. That's OK. Either way, I'm not too worried because I'm going to keep my campaign right here in America."

The theme that the president has started airing in campaign commercials in Florida and 16 other "battleground" states - promoting "steady leadership in times of change" - played as a refrain throughout his remarks here. He also strove to paint Kerry as an indecisive politician.

Bush named initiatives Kerry supported and now criticizes - from passage of the USA Patriot Act to the invasion of Iraq. "In fact," Bush said, "Senator Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue."

Kerry, who voted for the invasion of Iraq, criticizes Bush for going to war without support of more allies. The Bush campaign is turning this argument to suggest that the United States requires no "permission slip" from the United Nations.

"My opponent says he approves of bold action in the world, but only if other countries don't object," Bush said. "America must never outsource America's national security decisions to the leaders of other countries."

Bush also hammered Kerry for spending plans that require new taxes - Bush joking about Kerry's support once for a 50-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax: "He wanted you to pay all that money at the pump, and wouldn't even throw in a free car wash.

"He's going to tax all of you," Bush said of his opponent. "Fortunately, you're not going to give him that chance.

"The voters will have a very clear choice in this campaign," Bush said. "It's the choice between keeping the tax relief that is moving this economy forward, or putting the burden of higher taxes back on the American people. It is a choice between an America that leads the world with strength and confidence, or an America that is uncertain in the face of danger."

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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