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Political war of words heating up

Bush going on offensive; eventual debate not ruled out

President Bush talks about the economy during an event Thursday in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington.
President Bush talks about the economy during an event Thursday in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington.

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Tuesday, February 24: Hawaii, Idaho Democratic caucuses; Utah primary

Sunday, February 29: Puerto Rico Republican primary

"Super Tuesday," March 2: Primaries in California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, Georgia; caucuses in Minnesota

When is your primary? For more key dates in the 2004 election season, see our special America Votes 2004 Election Calendar
John F. Kerry
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush will step up his offensive against his Democratic rivals with a highly political speech Monday night as part of what an aide calls a "new period of engagement" for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

The campaign also is preparing to broadcast its first television advertisements March 4, two days after the 10 Democratic nominating contests of Super Tuesday.

"We are going to start looking and acting like an engaged campaign," campaign communications director Nicolle Devenish said. "It's a tactical shift."

Meanwhile, another official said the Bush campaign has not ruled out a "face-to-face" debate proposed in a letter from Democratic front-runner Sen. John Kerry, but only with "the eventual Democratic nominee."

"We look forward to vigorous debate on the important issues of the day with the eventual Democratic nominee," the campaign official told CNN.

Kerry's letter challenged Bush to debate him on the impact of their experiences during the Vietnam War and on their approaches to presidential leadership.

In the letter Kerry said, "This is not a debate to be distorted through your $100 million dollar campaign fund. This is a debate that should be conducted face to face."

During a conference call with reporters Saturday -- paid for by the Bush-Cheney campaign -- Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said that as a member of Congress, Kerry consistently voted to cut defense and intelligence funding.

Kerry accused Chambliss of impugning his patriotism.

In an interview Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Kerry said he had voted for many increases in defense and intelligence spending but "also fought for common sense in some of these things. ... I will stand by my record."

Republican fires back

The chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign responded with a letter of his own Sunday, accusing Kerry of running a "remarkably negative" campaign and vowing to defend the president's record against the eventual Democratic nominee.

"Our campaign is not questioning your patriotism or military service, but your votes and statements on the issues now facing our country," former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot wrote in a letter to Kerry dated Sunday.

"If they're going to challenge my commitment to the defense of this country, I'm going to challenge them right back," Kerry told supporters at a rally Sunday in Atlanta, Georgia. "We're not going to let them question what we're doing -- not for one instant."

In Sunday's letter, Racicot called on Kerry to rein in his fellow Democrats' attacks over whether Bush fulfilled his commitment to the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War era.

"As we debate these issues, I also ask you to elevate the remarkably negative tone of your campaign and your party over the past year," Racicot wrote.

"We intend to run a campaign on the issues and each candidate's record on those issues," he said. "We hope that in the future you and your surrogates will do the same."

Chambliss was elected to the Senate in 2002 after beating incumbent Democrat Max Cleland in a race that piqued Democrats to anger.

Chambliss, who never served in the military, portrayed Cleland, a decorated Vietnam veteran who lost three limbs in a grenade explosion, as soft on homeland security.

Cleland, who is campaigning on Kerry's behalf, appeared Sunday in Atlanta with his former colleague from Massachusetts and former civil rights leader John Lewis, now a Georgia congressman.

Kerry spokesman David Wade said GOP leaders "need to answer to the American people for their craven tactics that degrade our democracy."

"John Kerry takes a backseat to no one when it comes to maintaining the strongest military on the face of the Earth and keeping our promises to America's veterans, and across this country citizens are responding to his call for change," Wade said.

Bush gearing up

Devenish said Bush in his speech Monday evening at a Washington meeting of Republican governors will "make it clear he's now energized and ready to talk about the choice people have next November."

The president will not mention an opponent by name but will charge Democrats with running on "wrong ideas that will move the country backward and derail and weaken our ability to win the war on terror," Devenish said.

John Kerry addresses the crowd at a town hall meeting in Atlanta as former Sen. Max Cleland, right, looks on.
John Kerry addresses the crowd at a town hall meeting in Atlanta as former Sen. Max Cleland, right, looks on.

The first television ads, shot in the White House residence and on the grounds the week of February 9, will have what aides call a "positive tone," talking about the president's record, with the tagline: "steady leadership in times of change."

"It's important to note we are starting on a positive note and positive message in time where there have unprecedented harsh messages against the president," Devenish said.

Bush campaign aides have said for months they would wait to fully engage until the Democrats settled on their nominee, but they now say a "barrage of negative attacks" on the president prompted them to rethink that.

Public opinion polls, including one last week by CNN/USA Today/Gallup, have showed Bush losing hypothetical matchups with Kerry and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

Republican strategists and GOP congressional aides have told CNN recently they thought the White House was too much on the defensive on a host of issues and was waiting too long to shift into a more offensive campaign mode.

Bush campaign aides insist that despite Bush's dip in the polls, the mood in the White House and at Bush-Cheney headquarters is good.

CNN's Dana Bash and Kathleen Koch contributed to this report.

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