Thursday, March 18, 2004

President Bush’s re-election campaign has kept Sen. John Kerry on the defensive for days by employing an aggressive communications strategy that was largely absent just weeks ago.

The hard-charging approach entails simultaneous attacks on Mr. Kerry by the Bush campaign team, the Republican National Committee, the White House and the president. An abundance of Bush surrogates and well-financed TV ads round out the strategy.

“You’re going to see us continue to be more aggressive,” said a senior Bush campaign official. “I mean, everywhere Kerry goes, he’s not only rebutted, but ‘pre-butted.’”

The Bush team has ridiculed Mr. Kerry as an “international man of mystery” for refusing to name world leaders who he says endorse him over the president. Vice President Dick Cheney kept the story alive yesterday by demanding that Mr. Kerry come clean.

“We have a right to know what he is saying to foreign leaders that makes them so supportive of his candidacy,” Mr. Cheney said during a speech in California. “American voters are the ones charged with determining the outcome of this election, not unnamed foreign leaders.”

Although Mr. Kerry indicated he met in person with foreign leaders who privately endorsed him, he has made no official trips abroad in the past two years. Within the United States, he has had the chance to meet with only one foreign leader since the beginning of last year, according to a review of Mr. Kerry’s travel records by The Washington Times.

Mr. Cheney’s broadside came a day after the Bush campaign tried to spoil Mr. Kerry’s visit to West Virginia by airing a new ad in the crucial swing state that accused the decorated Vietnam veteran of being “wrong on defense.”

The ad criticized Mr. Kerry for “voting against funding our soldiers, body armor for troops in combat, higher combat pay and better health care for reservists and their families,” referring to the Democrat’s “no” vote on a bill to spend $87 billion on security and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After months of refusing to respond to attacks by Democrats during their fractious primary elections, the president now appears to be having some success in defining Mr. Kerry as a tax-raising, flip-flopping political opportunist who is dovish on the war against terrorism. Such characterizations have depressed Mr. Kerry’s support in the past two weeks, according to a poll released Tuesday by CBS News.

Although the president’s re-election numbers stayed steady at 46 percent, Mr. Kerry’s dropped from 47 percent to 43 percent. The Kerry number slipped to 38 percent when independent candidate Ralph Nader was added to the poll, while the president remained at 46 percent.

Furthermore, 57 percent of respondents agreed Mr. Kerry says what people want to hear, while only 33 percent said the Democrat says what he believes.

The Bush campaign wasn’t always so aggressive at driving down Mr. Kerry’s numbers. Two weeks ago, Mr. Bush was on the defensive about using September 11 imagery in his first campaign ads.

After Democrats produced families of victims of the attacks who spoke out against the ads, Republicans let several days pass before coming up with victims’ families who supported the ads.

But such hesitancy has been replaced by a rapid-response strategy that prizes speed and overwhelming force.

For example, when Mr. Kerry gave a major speech to a firefighters’ union in Washington on Monday, the Bush campaign made sure the Associated Press had a quote criticizing the remarks before they even were uttered. After the speech, the Bush campaign dispatched a surrogate, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, to critique the Democrat.

In addition to members of Congress such as Mr. Coleman, the Bush campaign also is deploying high-profile surrogates such as former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and his former police commissioner, Bernard Kerik.

“You’re going to see, over the course of the next seven months and you’re seeing it now a whole other layer of earned media to drive message,” said the Bush campaign official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“So in addition to John Kerry having to respond to the president and having to respond to ads, he’s going to also have to respond to other surrogates, not who bracket him, but who drive their own media and reinforce our paid message.

“The combination of the events, of the paid media, of the earned media and of the surrogates is pretty aggressive,” the official added. “And it’ll even get bigger.”

The strategy was the subject of some debate within the campaign, with some officials fretting that Mr. Bush would look unpresidential by wading into the fray so early. But White House political strategist Karl Rove and Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman were among the aides who pushed for the president’s team to engage Mr. Kerry early and often.

“It’s weird because half the people are criticizing us for coming out too early; the other half are criticizing us for coming out too late,” the campaign source said. “I think we’re doing it right.”

The campaign rejected the traditional re-election strategy for an incumbent president, which entails staying in the Rose Garden and refusing to even mention the challenger by name until the very end of the campaign.

Mr. Bush also was warned to stay in the Rose Garden during the run-up to the 2002 election. Democrats and even some Republicans predicted that the president would be blamed if he actively participated in the first midterms of his presidency, which usually result in major losses for the incumbent president’s party.

But Mr. Bush ignored the advice and campaigned furiously in dozens of states, helping his party score historic gains in both the House and Senate. The president is betting on the strategy again this year.

“I don’t believe the notion that it undermines or diminishes the value of the presidency,” the campaign source said. “It depends how the president acts. In 2002, Bush campaigned all around the country behaved like a gentlemen, always handled himself in a first-class way and it didn’t hurt anything.”

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