Monday, May 3, 2004

The political fires around the race for the White House have been stoked recently, with Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry on the defensive about his anti-Vietnam War activities and President Bush’s appearance before the September 11 commission.

But Mr. Bush, so far, has let his surrogates engage in the daily hand-to-hand political combat.

“Bush has a leg up on Kerry by the fact that he is the president of the United States,” said Republican political consultant Craig Shirley. “It’s not necessary for him to get involved in the day-to-day mud wrestling. But Kerry has to jump up and down and spit nickels to get attention.”

Mr. Bush’s surrogates recently blasted the Massachusetts senator’s discrepancies in his account of a medals-throwing event, in which he participated while protesting the Vietnam War. During an interview last week on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Mr. Kerry was forced to explain his statements about the medals, instead of touting his anti-Bush message.

Joe Cerell, a veteran Democratic political consultant, said he advises his clients to “get a hatchet man” to provide the campaign with plausible deniability and allow the candidate himself to take the high road.

“Let them do the job: ‘We’re above it,’” Mr. Cerell said. “And when that guy makes a mistake, you shrug your shoulders and say, ‘Hey, President Bush didn’t say that, Cheney said it.’”

But Mr. Bush’s surrogates also have been on the defensive, trying to limit the political damage from the president and vice president’s meeting with the September 11 commission last week.

Republican senators say memos released by the Justice Department cast doubt on the impartiality of Democratic Commissioner Jamie S. Gorelick because they suggest that she had a prominent role in intelligence breakdowns.

The White House expressed annoyance at only the memos’ release — not the content itself.

Some conservatives and Bush supporters, who asked not to be named, complained about the White House’s response, saying one would expect Democrats, not the president, to ignore the memos’ contents in favor of complaining about their public release.

Republican political consultant Arnold Steinberg, however, said it is the right strategy for Mr. Bush.

“That’s the proper position for him to take,” Mr. Steinberg said. “The fact is that the information is now there on the record. He has to stay above the fray and remain helpful to the commission. Let talk-radio hosts go after these issues as well and hard as they have. People hear it from them.”

Kellyanne Conway, president of the Polling Company and a Bush supporter, said the campaign’s “above-the-fray” strategy plays to one of Mr. Bush’s greatest strengths — his likability.

“He said he was going to come to Washington and change the tone, and he changed the entire channel,” Mrs. Conway said.

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