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Bush Starts Campaign Season With Criticism For Democrats

By Richard W. Stevenson

The New York Times -- WASHINGTON

President Bush kicked off his general election campaign on Monday night, shedding his above-the-fray posture to deliver a robust defense of his record and begin an assault on the Democratic front-runner, Sen. John Kerry.

Facing declining poll numbers and concerted Democratic criticism, and urged by many Republicans to accelerate his timetable for partisan engagement, Bush used a speech here to assert that the election would present a clear choice between his steady leadership and Democrats who could not be relied on to make the tough decisions necessary to deal with the economy and the threat from terrorism.

“It’s a choice between keeping the tax relief that is moving this economy forward, or putting the burden of higher taxes on the American people,” Bush said. “It’s a choice between an America that leads the world with strength and confidence, or an America that is uncertain in the face of danger.”

Without using Kerry’s name, the president mocked him as a politician whose positions change with the wind. The Democratic field, Bush said, is “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 against it. And that’s just one senator from Massachusetts.”

The speech, delivered at a fund-raiser to benefit the Republican Governors Association, was billed by Bush’s campaign as the start of a more aggressive phase of the race after months in which the president, to the growing consternation of some in his party, had remained largely on the sidelines.

Much of the speech was forward-looking. It sought to position Bush as optimistic and steady in the face of serious challenges to the country and relentless attacks by Democrats who, the president said, have failed to say how they would deal with the challenges the United States faces at home and abroad.

Campaign officials have said that Bush’s first advertisement will focus on his accomplishments, and would not attack Kerry.