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NEW YORK - President Bush pledged "a safer world and a more hopeful America" as he accepted his party's nomination for a second term in office and plunged into the final two months of his re-election campaign. He promptly drew fire Friday from challenger John Kerry that he was "unfit to lead this country."
In the city that transformed his presidency three Septembers ago, Bush declared to a raucous GOP convention crowd: "We have fought the terrorists across the earth _ not for pride, not for power, but because the lives of our citizens are at stake. ... We have led, many have joined, and America and the world are safer."
Bush wasted no time in getting back on the campaign trail, leaving heavily Democratic New York soon after his hour-long speech Thursday night for the more politically promising battleground of Pennsylvania.
He planned a Friday morning rally in the Scranton area, with stops later in the day in Wisconsin and Iowa.
Bush stood a few miles from where two hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, to make a nationally broadcast appeal to Americans for another term. "In the last four years, you and I have come to know each other. Even when we don't agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand," he said.
He boasted of first-term accomplishments, outlined plans for a second-term agenda and criticized Kerry on both domestic and foreign policy counts. "My opponent's policies are dramatically different from ours," he said, calling Kerry's agenda "policies of the past."
"Voters will make a choice based on the records we have built, the convictions we hold and the vision that guides us forward," Bush said, standing alone on an elevated theater-in-the-round platform in Madison Square Garden.
Kerry quickly joined the fray, flying from his home state, Massachusetts, to Springfield, Ohio, where he delivered a broadside against Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney at a midnight rally.
"They have attacked my patriotism and my fitness to serve as commander in chief," Kerry said. "I'm not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq."
Bush served stateside in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War era, while five student and marriage deferments kept Cheney out of military service. Kerry, who has served in the Senate for the past two decades, has made his own Vietnam combat service in the Navy a centerpiece of his campaign.
"Misleading our nation into war in Iraq makes you unfit to lead this country," Kerry added. "Doing nothing while this nation loses millions of jobs makes you unfit to lead this country. Letting 45 million Americans go without health care makes you unfit to lead this country. Letting the Saudi Royal Family control our energy costs makes you unfit to lead this country," Kerry told several thousand supporters.
In New York, Bush unapologetically defended his decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Because we acted to defend our country, the murderous regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban are history, more than 50 million people have been liberated, and democracy is coming to the broader Middle East," the president said.
Polls show the nation deeply divided on the wisdom of going to war with Iraq, where violence continues despite a turnover of control in June to an Iraqi interim government and as the U.S. death toll there is fast approaching 1,000.
First lady Laura Bush joined her husband on stage for the Madison Square Garden finale, followed by Cheney and his wife and extended families, as the convention came to a festive made-for-television conclusion in a blizzard of red, white and blue balloons, confetti, and streamers.
Bush said that in a second term, he would lead a bipartisan drive "to reform and simplify" the federal income tax, which he called "a complicated mess filled with special interest loopholes."
He also outlined a variety of proposals, most of them floated before, to provide tax and other incentives to help people buy homes, start small businesses and get job training; to encourage investment in economically distressed areas; and to give people more say in managing their own health care and retirement finances.
Bush also dusted off a proposal to allow younger workers to divert a few percentage points of their Social Security payroll taxes into 401(K)-like investment funds. Bush abandoned an earlier version of the proposal after a post-Sept. 11 fall in the stock market.
Bush also revived his "compassionate conservative" theme from 2000, saying he believed "that government should help people improve their lives, not try to run their lives."
He contrasted his policies with Kerry's vow to roll back many of the Bush tax cuts to help fund an expanded government health care program and to help strapped workers.
The president at times used self-deprecating humor to present his case for another term.
"Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger, which in Texas is called `walking.' Now and then I come across as a little too blunt _ and for that we can all thank the white-haired lady sitting right up there," he said, indicating his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, sitting alongside his beaming father, the first President Bush.
Bush's nomination triggered full federal financing for the rest of race.
Upon accepting the Democratic nomination five weeks ago, Kerry received $75 million in federal funds for the fall campaign. Bush now gets a like amount and must stop using privately raised funds.
The federal financing comes after the two candidates spent a record $200 million in privately raised funds between them for pre-convention campaign advertising. And that does not include money spent by political parties or independent outside groups like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose ads challenging Kerry's military service in Vietnam have become a major distraction for the Democrat.
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