Snapping Into Action

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For months, George W. Bush has opened his lucrative fund-raising speeches with the same line about where he is in the race for the presidency, telling politely chuckling audiences, "I'm just getting warmed up." Now, with his poll numbers falling—last week a survey of likely voters found him trailing Democratic front runner John Kerry 43% to 55%—he seems ready to acknowledge that a little sprinting may be in order.

Until the end of last week, his advisers insisted that their boss would engage his political adversaries "later rather than sooner." That has changed—mainly because these advisers now worry that Bush's opponents have been so effective in defining him that only the President can stand up for himself. Meanwhile, the Democratic primaries have produced candidates who are less bruised than the Bush team expected. The President has been chomping at the bit to get started. "He has been waiting for the go signal," says a top adviser. Notes another: "He is a guy of action. He wants to be doing something. He doesn't like to sit around."

The Bush team is no longer worried that having him join the political fray this early in the season might raise the leading Democratic candidates to the level of the presidency, diluting the advantages of incumbency their boss enjoys. "They're already there," concedes an aide. So this week the Bush campaign will boost its ranks of surrogate campaigners and begin buying time for political ads that advisers say will accentuate his record and start out positive. On Monday, Bush makes his most overt political pitch yet of the 2004 campaign in a speech to Republican Governors. "It will be unmistakable," says a top adviser. "We're hitting the accelerator."

Though the President doesn't plan to mention his competition by name, aides say, he will start drawing clear distinctions between what his advisers call "two visions of government." His message: If you want to keep taxes down and win the war on terror, pick me; if not, pick a Democrat.