Thursday, September 9, 2004

President Bush’s re-election strategists hope Sen. John Kerry keeps talking about Iraq and Vietnam for the next 54 days because they think national security is the president’s strong suit.

“As long as they’re talking about national security, we’re winning every single day and he’s digging a deeper hole,” said a senior Bush strategist. “Amazingly, even when Bill Clinton gives Kerry advice to stop talking about Iraq and Vietnam, he proceeds to keep talking about both of them. It’s very helpful.”

Bush strategists say such topics serve to reinforce their portrayal of Mr. Kerry as a flip-flopping political opportunist who takes all sides of every issue.

Yesterday, for example, when Mr. Kerry savaged the president for spending $200 billion on Iraq, the Bush campaign pointed out that the Massachusetts Democrat once called for Iraq funding to be increased by “whatever number of billions of dollars it takes to win.”

Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt pronounced this Mr. Kerry’s “eighth distinct position on the war in Iraq.”

“John Kerry voted for the war, but voted against funds for our troops, and after saying he was ‘proud’ of voting against money for the troops, he now says that the money could have been better used elsewhere,” Mr. Schmidt said. “John Kerry can’t keep his story straight for 24 hours about what his priorities would be.”

Even when the Bush campaign is accused of crossing the line in its attacks on Mr. Kerry, another precious news cycle ends up being consumed by the debate over national security.

After Vice President Dick Cheney suggested on Tuesday that America would be at greater risk of a terrorist attack if Mr. Kerry were to be elected, Democrats cried foul. But a new Gallup poll shows that Americans, by a 2-to-1 margin, agree with that sentiment.

Yesterday, Republicans were unapologetic about Mr. Cheney’s remarks.

“It’s up to the American people to make a judgment as to who’s going to make the country safer,” said the senior Bush strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The administration that has the right ideas to make us safe is this administration.”

White House political strategist Karl Rove said the president is by no means limiting his campaign platform to national security. Mr. Bush began laying out a detailed domestic agenda last week and will continue to promote it in the face of mounting attacks by Mr. Kerry.

“I do think it’s important that as we’re attacked, we make certain that we continue to lay out an agenda,” Mr. Rove said.

“Like this Friday, we’re going to be talking about energy policy. Monday, we talked about tax reform.

“It’s important for us to make certain that we don’t fall prey to just sort of the tit-for-tat back and forth, and instead, we keep trying to drive an agenda,” he added. “To the extent that people are paying attention in the battleground states, they want to hear that message when we campaign there.”

Democrats said although Mr. Kerry devoted much of his speech in Cincinnati yesterday to criticizing the president on Iraq, he did so in a way that would show how spending on the war has impacted domestic initiatives. Moreover, they insisted that Iraq is a potent issue for Mr. Kerry.

“The way that George Bush has handled the war is an issue in this campaign, and John Kerry thinks it’s important to highlight the wrong choices that Bush has made,” said Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer. “That’s a debate that we fully embrace and look forward to having.”

Mr. Kerry spent August reeling from attacks on his military record by fellow Vietnam veterans. Although media attention to that dispute has subsided somewhat, Democrats risk reopening those wounds by renewing their attacks on Mr. Bush’s stateside National Guard service during the Vietnam conflict.

“This is old news that people have already made a judgment about, yet it continues to suck oxygen out of the air,” a Bush adviser said. “Also, the Kerry camp is getting dangerously close to saying that if you didn’t go to Vietnam and get medals during the Vietnam War, you’re not a good person.

“And the vast majority of Americans at that time didn’t go to Vietnam,” the adviser added. “I mean, it’s important to honor the people who went, but there’s no reason to then turn around and insult the people who didn’t.”

Bush officials were careful to downplay polls showing the president with a lead of seven to 11 percentage points over Mr. Kerry, insisting the post-convention bounce will dissipate within a week. But they made no attempt to hide their satisfaction with last week’s Republican National Convention.

Republicans recalled that Mr. Bush had difficulty promoting his agenda in July, in the wake of the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq and Mr. Kerry’s selection of Sen. John Edwards as his running mate. But they were heartened by what they described as “missed opportunities” by the Democrats at their convention.

“We were deathly concerned that they would lay out an agenda — particularly that they would say fundamental tax reform — and that we’d be behind the eight ball,” said the Bush strategist.

“But instead, their convention was all about telling Americans the one thing they already knew about John Kerry — that he served in Vietnam,” the official added. “So we seized the opportunity, and as a result, I think we came across, particularly for undecided and weak leaners, as having the better convention.”

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