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Bush fires first salvo at Kerry

Los Angeles, March 4 (Reuters): US President George W. Bush jump-started the 2004 campaign yesterday with his first direct attack on rival John Kerry by name, challenging his record on national security and the economy just 24 hours after congratulating him on locking up the Democratic nomination.

Barnstorming California one day after Kerry won its Democratic primary, Bush unleashed his most blistering attack to date on the Massachusetts Senator, accusing him of waffling on important issues during two decades in Congress, and warning that he would roll back tax cuts critical to economic growth.

“I’ve got news for the Washington crowd: America has gone beyond that way of thinking and we’re not going back,” Bush told a Los Angeles fund-raiser. In 24 hours, Bush’s tone has shifted dramatically.

Whereas Kerry received a call of congratulations from the Republican President on Tuesday after scoring coast-to-coast primary victories, Bush yesterday kicked off what promises to be a heated eight-month election battle with his Democratic rival, whom the Bush team considers a formidable candidate.

“He (Kerry) spent two decades in Congress, built up quite a record. In fact, Senator Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue,” Bush said derisively.

“I’m ready for this campaign,” Bush declared. “We stand ready to lead this nation for four more years.”

Stepping up the attacks, the first television commercials of his re-election campaign — casting Bush as a tried and tested leader in challenging times — will begin airing today in at least 16 important battleground states.

Reaching out to conservatives in the election’s most prized state, Bush yesterday touted his efforts to funnel federal funds to religious charities that provide social services. “There’s been a big debate about this because we want to make sure there’s a separation between church and state,” said Bush, a devout Christian.

“There are some rules. You can’t use federal money to proselytise, but you can use federal money to help a person quit drinking (and) you can use federal money to help a person find housing,” Bush added.

Bush hoped to shore up his conservative base during his two-day swing through the state, which is at the epicentre of an election-year debate over gay marriage.

Bush addressed the thorny issue indirectly yesterday by saying:

“We will not stand for judges who undermine democracy by legislating from the bench and try to remake the culture of America by court order.”

Bush cited the flurry of same-sex weddings in San Francisco in deciding to seek a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage.

California is also the nation’s single biggest electoral prize. Democrat Al Gore won the state handily in 2000, but Bush made clear he would not cede the state to Kerry. “No party can take this state for granted,” Bush said.

After months on the defensive over Iraq, job growth and his military record, Bush has plunged wholeheartedly into the campaign fray. The President has already raised approximately $150 million for his re-election campaign, and at a Los Angeles fund-raiser yesterday, he raised $800,000 more.

Bush’s goal is to raise $170 million to saturate the airwaves with commercials designed to both bolster his image and try to create doubts about Kerry.

“John Kerry will be a formidable candidate. He’s successfully run for re-election many times. He’s a skilled debater and with a closely divided electorate, we can’t take anything for granted,” said a senior Bush campaign official.

Today, Bush will turn his focus to the economy in the agricultural and oil-producing city of Bakersfield, California. Slow job growth has emerged as a major political problem for Bush. He will then attend in fund-raiser in Santa Clara, near San Francisco.

From California, Bush will travel to his Crawford, Texas ranch for weekend talks with Mexican President Vicente Fox.

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