WACO, Texas -- In formally launching his bid for reelection in 2004, President Bush is using the sights and sounds of the war against terrorism to appeal to potential donors, asking supporters to give money to his campaign immediately so he can focus on terrorism and using the rhetoric of Sept. 11 in his stump speech.
A quote about the ''whirlwind of change and hope and peril'' facing the nation is featured prominently on his official reelection website, right next to a photograph of Bush giving a thumbs-up. In a recent letter to more than a million potential donors, Bush mentioned the war on terrorism alongside his request for campaign funds.
And at a fund-raiser for congressional candidates last week, Bush did not hesitate to focus on the continuing threat of terrorism in his keynote speech. ''The war on terror continues,'' Bush told Republican members of the House and Senate on Wednesday at an event that raised $22 million, the first example of the president's fund-raising prowess since he made his candidacy official the week before. ''Our work is not done. The enemies of freedom are not idle, and neither are we. This country will not rest, we will not tire, we will not stop until the danger to civilization is removed.''
The tactic, which Bush and other Republicans also used in the 2002 midterm campaign, has roiled Democrats, especially the nine who are running for president themselves, and prompted accusations that the White House is continuing to politicize the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But with the Republican convention scheduled to take place in New York City from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2, 2004, shortly before the anniversary of the attacks, Bush political strategists are showing no signs that they will back away from terrorism as a central theme.
''Of course they're running on the war on terrorism. What else would they run on? The economy?'' said Jennifer Palmieri, press secretary to Senator John Edwards, Democrat of North Carolina, who is running for president. ''Unfortunately, we fully expect President Bush and his staff to try to use the war on terrorism as a political tool, and we've already seen a good bit of evidence of that.''
Palmieri cited the Republican's use of Sept. 11-related photos in fund-raising literature and questioned the merit of the president's much-publicized address from the flight deck of the USS Lincoln earlier this month. ''But we believe that the American people are pretty sophisticated,'' she said. ''The president risks generating resentment among the public for using Sept. 11 and the war on terror as a political issue.''
Bush is expected to double the size of his record-breaking 2000 campaign coffer, raising as much as $200 million by the end of the 2004 cycle. His reelection committee has created a new category of fund-raisers known as ''Rangers,'' who will raise $200,000 apiece, to complement the ''Pioneers,'' who are tasked with raising $100,000 each.
Bush's projected funds dwarf those of his Democratic challengers. In the last quarter, from January to March, Edwards and Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts -- the two candidates who have raised the most money in the field -- each pulled in about $7 million in the first quarter of this year. Bush advisers believe that they can raise that much or more in a handful of fund-raisers he is scheduled to hold next month in Georgia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, New York, Miami, and Tampa. On June 23, Vice President Dick Cheney, who recently declared his intention to remain on the ticket, is expected to appear at a fund-raiser outside Boston.
At a briefing with reporters on Friday near the Bush ranch outside Waco, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said the president must begin raising money more than a year before the election because he has so many other weighty obligations. ''The president has a very busy schedule of official events. He has a limited window in which he can participate in his own direct political affairs as he prepares for an election -- a reelection,'' Fleischer said.
In a letter to potential donors dated May 16, Bush delivered the same message. ''My responsibilities as president will require me to focus primarily on our nation's business for most of the next year,'' said the letter, which was obtained by the Associated Press.
''I'll be depending on friends and supporters like you to get my campaign organized and operating across our country,'' the letter read. ''We have no more urgent and important duty than to wage and win the War on Terrorism. We must make use of the moment history has given us to extend liberty to others around the world, because in the long term, freedom and hope are the best weapons against terror.''
Chris Lehane, a senior adviser to Kerry, described the letter as further evidence the Bush White House is ''perpetually in campaign mode'' -- and, in a sign of how Democrats intend to combat Bush's emphasis on patriotism, said that Bush is trying to gloss over his failing economic policies with flag-waving imagery.
''There's no question they are going to use the war and patriotism as their message in lieu of being able to talk about anything they have done positively for the country on the domestic front,'' Lehane said. ''At the end of the day, a good photo-op is not going to replace 2.5 million jobs lost. George W. Bush has the worst economic record of any president since Herbert Hoover. He has presided over the greatest loss of wealth in the history of humanity.''
Bush, he said, is ''not going to be able to land on an aircraft carrier every day in the fall of 2004,'' referring to the event off the coast of San Diego that prompted Democrats to accuse Bush of using taxpayer funds for campaign purposes.
The GOP hasn't been shy about using national security as a political issue. In January 2002, senior White House political adviser Karl Rove told a group of Republicans that ''we can go to the country on this issue,'' referring to terrorism -- a remark that infuriated Democrats. Then, late last year, the White House circulated internally a document about their 2004 ''signature issues,'' listing the war on terror first, although aides later said it was just one of many issues the president will run on.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.