CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer
Hoping to reframe the presidential debate, President Bush took the offensive Tuesday and asked Congress to pass a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. That followed his first campaign speech Monday night where he attacked Sen. John Kerry as an indecisive, tax-raising candidate who will weaken America's national security.
Taking a definitive stance on an increasingly divisive social issue at the outset of his re-election campaign, Mr. Bush called marriage "the most fundamental institution of civilization," in need of defense against "activist judges."
Massachusetts' highest court has ruled that same-sex marriage is constitutional and should be made available in May. In San Francisco, city officials have issued more than 3,000 marriage licenses to gay couples in defiance of California law.
Despite his opposition to gay marriage, the president said he supports states' rights to "make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage," which leaves the path open to civil unions.
While appeasing the conservative wing of his party – which has pressed the president for months to throw his weight behind an amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman – the Bush campaign hopes the president's stance will be contrasted with the more-nuanced positions of his Democratic rivals.
Both Kerry and Sen. John Edwards are against gay marriage, yet both men do not favor a constitutional amendment banning it, arguing that the issue should be left to the states.
Calling today's announcement by Mr. Bush an election year ploy, Kerry immediately responded to the president in a statement issued by his campaign.
"All Americans should be concerned when a President who is in political trouble tries to tamper with the constitution of the United States at the start of his reelection campaign," the Kerry statement read. "I oppose this election year effort to amend the Constitution in an area that each state can adequately address."
In 1996, Kerry voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, which exempts states from the legal obligation to honor marriages of same-sex couples in other states. At the time, Kerry called the act too divisive. The Bush campaign is likely to cite this vote as the general election heats up.
Launching his campaign Monday night in a partisan speech to the Republican Governor's Association in Washington, Mr. Bush stepped sore-footed into the general election. It was not a step he wanted to take so early in the year, before a Democratic nominee was chosen.
But after months of negative news, as the Democratic candidates barraged him over issues ranging from faulty pre-war intelligence to the inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to his National Guard record, the president was forced to enter the political fray.
Several polls show Mr. Bush losing in a general election against Kerry. The president's sagging approval rating was not lifted by his State of the Union address (seen as muddled, even by Republicans) nor his interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" (where the president appeared unprepared for the national debate).
While the president would not mention his likely opponent by name, referring to Kerry as the "the senator from Massachusetts," the Bush campaign is not showing such political reticence.
In a conference call with reporters Monday afternoon, Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot said, "What we are doing is responding to inaccuracies and misrepresentations that have been presented by Senator Kerry."
Illustrating how the Bush campaign will portray the decorated Vietnam veteran as weak on national defense, Racicot hammered away at Kerry's voting record. He pointed out that Kerry voted in 1995 to cut intelligence spending by $1.5 billion, and voted against weapons programs like the B-2 and Stealth bombers; the F-14, F-15 and F-16 fighters; the M1 Abrams tank; the Apache helicopter; the Patriot missile system; and the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
The Kerry campaign responded by saying that the Massachusetts senator "has voted for many of the very weapons systems the Bush smear machine is hitting him on now." It said Kerry voted to fund the B-1 bomber, to increase funding for the Apache helicopter and that Kerry did propose shutting down the B-2, "but so did Dick Cheney, Tom Ridge and former President Bush."
Racicot said that when Kerry and Edwards voted last year against the $87 billion supplemental appropriation for the war in Iraq, it included money for body armor, hazard pay and family support for troops in Iraq.
Kerry said he voted against the bill to force the president "finally to develop a real plan that secures the safety of our troops and stabilizes Iraq."
Illustrating the Bush campaign's reasoning for entering the general election so early, Racicot said Kerry has already spent $6.95 million on TV advertising, 74 percent of which "funded direct attacks on the president."
The president's reelection campaign filmed Mr. Bush in the White House during the week of Feb. 9 for advertising to be aired in swing states. Monday, it began the process of calling stations to inquire about purchasing ad time.
The advertising campaign will emphasize President Bush's "positive message" and present him as a man of "steady leadership in the face of remarkable change," Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel said. He added that the advertising would show that the president has led "with the strong leadership that challenging times demand."
Mr. Bush is already contrasting himself with Kerry, describing the Democratic frontrunner as waffling on key issues.
"The (Democratic) candidates are an interesting group, with diverse opinions: 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 opposed to it," the president said. "And that's just one senator from Massachusetts."
The audience broke out in laughter and applause, while Mr. Bush looked on with his stiff smirk, very much the confident incumbent.