ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — President Bush’s re-election campaign yesterday released a TV ad in which he recalls the agony of September 11, prompting Sen. John Kerry to accuse Mr. Bush of desperation.
The president returned fire later in the day by ridiculing Mr. Kerry’s plan to significantly reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq within the first six months of a Kerry presidency. Mr. Bush said telegraphing such a timetable to the enemy would jeopardize the mission.
But most of the sniping on the campaign trail yesterday stemmed from the president’s new TV ad, titled “Solemn Duty.”
“My most solemn duty is to lead our nation to protect ourselves,” the president says in the 30-second ad, which will run in swing states and on national cable channels.
“I can’t imagine the great agony of a mom or a dad having to make the decision about which child to pick up first on September the 11th,” he adds as first lady Laura Bush looks on. The ad contains no footage of the terrorist attacks.
“We cannot hesitate; we cannot yield; we must do everything in our power to bring an enemy to justice before they hurt us again,” Mr. Bush says.
Kerry campaign spokesman Chad Clanton accused Mr. Bush of invoking September 11 for political gain at a time when the president has been unable to pull ahead of Mr. Kerry in the polls.
“This is Bush’s idea of an optimistic campaign?” he said. “The president has his back against the wall, so now he invokes September 11 in his ads.”
He added: “If you ever wanted proof that the Bush campaign has reached the point of desperation, now we have it.”
But Mr. Kerry himself injected September 11 into the campaign last week by accusing the president of responding too slowly to news of the terrorist attacks. Specifically, the Massachusetts Democrat slammed Mr. Bush for remaining in a second-grade classroom in Florida for five minutes after learning the news.
The Bush ad was also widely questioned by journalists, including Diane Sawyer during an interview with Sen. John McCain, who spent the last two days campaigning with Mr. Bush.
“Is the president using September 11 as a political issue?” she asked on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“I think the defining event not only of this nation’s history, but of this presidency was the events of 9/11,” the Arizona Republican replied. “One of the reasons why so many of us are so strongly supporting his re-election is because of his moral clarity and leadership of this country post-9/11.”
He added: “Should he be proud of that? I think so.”
Hours later, ABC News political director Mark Halperin and his staff criticized the ad in an online memo that said “this is now John Kerry’s contest to lose.”
“We don’t mean to diminish the power of 9/11 or the president’s bond with many of the American people over it,” Mr. Halperin wrote. “But surely there will be for some a whiff of the desperate in using this thematic now, on the eve of the New York convention and when the Bush-Cheney second term agenda is supposed to be being fleshed out.”
Aboard Air Force One, a Boston Globe reporter asked White House spokesman Scott McClellan: “Why are we still going back to terrorism? Why don’t we hear more about what the president intends to do on the domestic front?”
“September 11th was a defining moment in our history,” Mr. McClellan said. “He’s going to continue to talk about our nation’s highest priorities, and those include winning the war on terrorism.”
The Kerry campaign later issued a memo saying the Bush campaign “is realizing that the only way it can evoke any emotion about Bush’s candidacy is by looking backwards.”
But in criticizing the Bush campaign for “looking backwards,” the Kerry campaign again invoked Mr. Kerry’s service in Vietnam more than 30 years ago.
The memo said Americans “need more than remembrances; they need action. And they see in John Kerry a combat-tested veteran who has been very clear about how he would approach national security and intelligence reform.”
Seeking to put Mr. Kerry back on the defensive, the president criticized him for putting a timetable on the planned withdrawal of the 140,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in Iraq.
On Friday, Mr. Kerry told National Public Radio: “I believe that within a year from now, we could significantly reduce American forces in Iraq, and that’s my plan.”
Yesterday, Mr. Bush criticized that plan.
“He said he is going to substantially reduce the number of troops six months after he’s the president,” Mr. Bush told an audience in Albuquerque. “Listen, we all want the mission to be completed as quickly as possible — but we want the mission to be completed.
“Secondly, the mission is not going to be completed as quickly as possible if the enemy thinks that we’re going to be removing a substantial number of troops in six months.
“Thirdly, the people that should be making recommendations as to whether or not the mission is nearly completed, so that we can relieve troops, are the commanders on the ground,” he added. “I know what I’m doing when it comes to winning this war and I’m not going to be sending mixed signals.”
The Kerry campaign accused Mr. Bush of twisting the Democrat’s words.
“One thing we know for sure is that the troops are going to be in Iraq for a lot longer under George Bush than they will be with John Kerry as president,” Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said.
“Eighteen months into this war, George Bush has yet to produce a plan to win the peace, the military is overextended, and America is less respected in the world.”