Thursday, March 4, 2004

The Bush-Cheney campaign, which yesterday announced its first round of re-election ads, plans to spend the next eight months targeting Sen. John Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal who is weak on defense and national security.

After months of silence while a large field of Democratic rivals criticized President Bush, operatives for the Bush-Cheney re-election team are ready to mount a counteroffensive.

The ads will begin with a recitation of Mr. Bush’s achievements and quickly move to a point-by-point comparison with Mr. Kerry, targeting his 20-year Senate record.

Mr. Bush himself enunciated one central message for Republicans in the 2004 campaign in a Los Angeles speech last night — national security.

He took exception to Mr. Kerry’s claim that the war on terrorism is “far less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering, law-enforcement operation,” saying this was how the Clinton administration handled the first World Trade Center bombing, in 1993.

“The matter was handled in the courts and thought by some to be settled, but the terrorists were still training in Afghanistan, plotting in other nations and drawing up more ambitious plans,” Mr. Bush said. “After the chaos and carnage of September the 11th, it is not enough to serve our enemies with legal papers.”

Vice President Dick Cheney was sounding a similar note Tuesday even as Mr. Kerry was effectively clinching the Democratic presidential nomination in the primaries and caucuses.

Mr. Kerry “clearly has, over the years, adopted a series of positions that indicate a desire to cut the defense budget, to cut the intelligence budget, to eliminate many major weapons programs, to vote against, for example, the first Gulf war resolution back in 1991, and his inconsistency with respect to Iraq,” Mr. Cheney told Fox News Channel.

The Bush-Cheney campaign, sitting on a $100 million war chest, is planning on early advertising in 16 battleground states. Those early ads will offer a positive and upbeat message, avoiding mention of Mr. Kerry while stressing the president’s “steady leadership in times of change” — the slogan of one of the first ads that will air in select television markets.

“President Bush has provided the kind of steady leadership that the American people are looking for,” campaign manager Ken Mehlman said at a press conference yesterday. “He has made this country more secure at home and abroad, and his pro-growth policies are helping to create jobs and strengthen the economic recovery.”

Leadership, change and optimism were key themes of Mr. Bush’s 2000 campaign, suggesting a contrast with the scandal-plagued tenure of the Clinton-Gore administration. Those same themes — plus the idea of a nation made safer after the September 11 “day of tragedy” — appear in all three TV ads that his campaign scheduled to begin airing today.

The ads, which will be posted on a Web site (, also will air on Spanish-language stations and be e-mailed to millions of supporters.

Mr. Kerry will have a hard time countering the Bush ads. The Democrat’s campaign reports having just slightly more than $2 million, which means he must rely on free TV coverage by networks to spread his message in the near future.

Although Democrats garnered plenty of coverage in the past several months — when as many as nine presidential candidates campaigned and debated for the party’s nomination — that news story ended this week.

The president’s campaign, meanwhile, can begin splashing ads nationwide with confidence that Mr. Bush will be even more awash in contributions as the campaign approaches the summer nominating conventions of both parties.

Mr. Bush has asked for “civility” in the campaign, a desire echoed by Mr. Kerry, who said he told the president that he planned to run on the issues when Mr. Bush phoned him with congratulations Tuesday night.

Republicans, however, are preparing to defend against a negative campaign by Democrats still smarting from the hard-fought 2000 election.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie accused a liberal group, the Voter Fund, of an apparent “willingness to blatantly violate the new campaign-finance laws” for “airing commercials assailing Bush for months in several swing states” and preparing $1.9 million in TV ads.

The RNC has labeled Mr. Kerry an extreme liberal and tagged the Democrat as a “senator straddle” who flip-flops on issues such as the Iraq war and homosexual “marriage.”

Earlier yesterday, that was the theme of the president’s first mention of Mr. Kerry by name.

“He’s spent two decades in Congress. He’s built up quite a record,” he said. “In fact, Senator Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue.”

One of the Bush-Cheney campaign’s 30-second spots, titled “Safer, Stronger,” will include graphics referring to the economic recession and “dot-com” bust that preceded the 2001 terror attacks, followed by America “turning the corner” and “rising to the challenge.”

The ad’s kicker reads: “Safer, stronger. President Bush. Steady leadership in times of change.”

The Kerry camp issued an e-mail yesterday assailing the Bush ads.

“The only thing steady about this president is his steadily leading our country in the wrong direction,” the press release said.

The Bush team fired back late last night in a signal that the planned positive phase of the campaign is not likely to last long.

“It’s sad that less than 24 hours after the president called to congratulate Senator Kerry on an impressive victory, his campaign reverted to the negative attacks,” said Steve Schmidt of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

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