WASHINGTON -- President Bush launched his re-election campaign Friday with high approval ratings and a clear path to the Republican nomination -- but with political clouds from the sluggish economy.
Hoping to achieve a goal denied to his father, Bush filed formal notice of his quest for a second term with the Federal Election Commission. The long-expected paperwork, which lists Vice President Dick Cheney as his 2004 running mate, allows Bush to open a campaign headquarters, hire staff and start raising money.
"The American people will decide whether or not I deserve a second term," the president said in a brief question-and-answer session with reporters.
His re-election bid will be run from the White House by Karl Rove, the ubiquitous presidential adviser who has already drafted a campaign battle plan to bolster GOP organizations in key states, dominate Democrats by exceeding the 2000 campaign's record-breaking $100 million and cast the incumbent as a warrior president who rises above the political fray.
Bush made his long-known intentions official just 15 days after he declared victory over Saddam Hussein's forces.
Democrats, who are fielding nine candidates in search of the presidential nomination, believe that continued economic woes, problems in postwar Iraq or even another terrorist strike on U.S. soil could change Bush's political fortunes.
"Instead of worrying about his own job security, Bush should be spending his time on the job security of the 2.5 million Americans who have lost their jobs since he became president," said Chris Lehane, an adviser to Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Bush filed with the FEC 18 months before the November 2004 election, about the same point in the cycle that former President Clinton formally began his 1996 re-election bid. Bush's father waited until the fall of his pre-election year to declare his intentions.
The elder Bush began his re-election campaign with high approval ratings after the 1991 Persian Gulf War but was defeated by Clinton, who tapped into the public's anxieties over the weak economy.
The younger Bush hopes to avoid the same fate by underscoring GOP efforts to improve the economy, primarily with a multibillion-dollar tax-cut plan. And while his father's standoff with Saddam quickly faded from public view in 1991, the younger Bush's efforts to rebuild Iraq and stem the tide of global terrorism will likely make national security a prime campaign issue.
"People love to watch him salute the flag," said GOP activist Steve Duprey of New Hampshire.
Bush likely will have another advantage his father never had: an unobstructed road to the GOP nomination. While conservative Pat Buchanan's populist campaign undercut the elder Bush's re-election bid, no Republican hopeful has emerged to challenge the younger Bush.
Nor does there appear to be a third-party candidate who could have the impact H. Ross Perot had in 1992 when he siphoned votes from the elder Bush.
"This President Bush doesn't have to look over his shoulder," said GOP strategist Tom Rath of New Hampshire. "With his party united and a strong base behind him, he has the luxury of doing other things politically."
Rove and his White House staff of 60 have worked with GOP operations in key states to build strong organizations, defend Bush against Democratic criticisms and bolster the president's profile. Finance chairs will soon be announced in some of the dozen or so swing states.
Most modern re-election bids have been run from the White House, including Clinton's.
Bush also will draw heavily from his 2000 campaign, with Mark McKinnon producing his ads, Matthew Dowd coordinating polling and Jack Oliver raising money again this time.
Bush narrowly won the 2000 election against Democrat Al Gore, who captured a slim majority of the popular vote but lost to Bush on the state-by-state electoral race when the Supreme Court stopped Gore's bid for a recount in Florida.
After a slow start, Bush's approval ratings soared in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and spiked again after the U.S.-led war against Iraq.
Recent polls show that 65 percent to 70 percent of Americans approve of his job performance, and slightly more say he has strong qualities of leadership. Bush and his political team believe the leadership trait will trump any concerns voters have about the president's policies, which Democrats assert are far too conservative for mainstream America.
The low-key announcement Friday is part of the Bush strategy to avoid overt political activity while reaping the benefits of incumbency.
A sitting president can, for example, travel the nation largely at taxpayers expense during a political campaign. Bush may stage an announcement event at some point but not soon, aides said.
The first solicitations for Bush campaign money will be mailed to potential donors in the next few days, the officials said, and Bush himself plans to make his first appearance at a fund-raiser in June. He could double the $100 million he raised in 2000.
Bush does not intend to accept federal campaign money for the primaries, a strategy that allows him to ignore spending limits and raise millions of dollars more than any Democrat.
Bush-Cheney '04: www.georgewbush.com