ONTARIO, Calif. — President Bush accused Democrats of playing politics with the economy Saturday and vowed "not over my dead body will they raise your taxes."
Interrupting his Texas vacation to return fire from his Democratic critics, Bush ridiculed suggestions that his 10-year, $1.35 trillion tax-cut package was a mistake. He delivered a spirited defense of his economic policies at a town hall meeting that touched on topics ranging from the war on terrorism to his belief in the power of prayer.
"The best way to recover is to let people have their own money in their pockets," Bush said. "Some in Washington are saying that the tax cuts caused the recession. I don't know what economic textbook they're reading."
He suggested that any effort to repeal or postpone planned tax cuts would amount to a tax increase.
Bush's comments were the latest salvo in what is likely to be a contentious election-year debate over how to deal with the stalled economy. The opening shot came from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who staked out his party's views in a Friday speech that criticized Bush's tax cuts.
Bush offered his response in advance of his Monday return to Washington at stops in Ontario, near Los Angeles, and in Portland, Ore., where he toured a job-training center. The town hall meeting, sponsored by several Hispanic organizations and local business groups, also gave him a chance to reach out to Hispanic voters.
Without mentioning Daschle by name, Bush accused his critics of putting politics ahead of the national interest.
"I stand here as a proud party man, but let me tell you something — the country is far more important," he said to a thunderous standing ovation. "There are troubling signs that the old ways are beginning to creep back into people's minds in Washington. After all, it's an election year. It's tempting to revert back to the old ways, but America is better than that."
Daschle accused the president of distorting his position on tax cuts. In his remarks Friday, Daschle stopped short of calling for a repeal or postponement, although some Democrats have suggested that.
"No amount of hot rhetoric will get the economy back on track," he said.
Bush's anti-tax pledge echoed his father's vow: "Read my lips: No new taxes." The elder Bush abandoned his promise by supporting a deficit-reduction plan that included tax increases. Many of his conservative supporters were furious.
The younger Bush has acknowledged that his father's broken commitment contributed to his 1992 defeat. He is also painfully aware that many voters believed that his father was far more focused on foreign affairs than the domestic economy — a criticism that the current president seems determined to avoid.
"My attitude is that as long as any willing and able worker can't find work, we need to do something about it," Bush said. He reiterated his support for expanded unemployment benefits and a tax credit to help jobless workers pay for health care. He also wants to provide new tax breaks to businesses.
In a wide-ranging question and answer session at the Ontario Convention Center, Bush said he has "felt the power of the prayers of the American people" on his behalf.
"People say, 'Well, how do you know? I say, 'Well, I can just feel it,' " Bush said. "I can't describe it very well, but I feel comforted by the prayers." He also suggested that religious leaders can help their congregations invoke "a spiritual shield that protects the country" against future terrorist attacks.
Bush appeared to be well rested and in high spirits after nearly two weeks at his ranch in Crawford, near Waco.
"You know, when I first got back from Washington, it seemed like the cows were talking back. Now that I've spent some time in Crawford, they're just cows," he joked.