President, Kerry set sights on November

Bush launches ad blitz on cable and in key states

Democrat seeks running mate

Election 2004

March 04, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush and John Kerry lost no time launching their eight-month general election battle yesterday, one day after the Massachusetts senator effectively locked up the Democratic presidential nomination.

Bush campaign strategists, eager to deflect public attention from Kerry's attacks on the president, previewed a series of upbeat television ads that will begin streaming into millions of American homes today.

One of the Bush commercials, the initial wave in an expected $100-million-plus re-election ad drive, features close-up footage of Bush and his wife, Laura, who praises her husband's "strength" and "focus."

Kerry, also pivoting toward the November election, announced the start of his search for a vice presidential candidate. It will be conducted by Jim Johnson, a wealthy businessman and Washington veteran who ran Walter F. Mondale's 1984 presidential campaign and was later chairman of Fannie Mae, the mortgage financing company.

There has been speculation that Kerry might choose a running mate well before the Democratic convention in Boston in late July. The announcement that he would begin the search process "over the next several weeks" is likely to keep the speculation alive.

But the vice presidential guessing game is Kerry's best way to maintain public interest in his campaign during the spring and summer, and he is unlikely to reveal his choice until closer to the convention, aides have said.

"I wouldn't just begin to throw names around," Kerry said in an interview with a Florida television station. He said he is seeking a running mate whom he could get along with personally and who would be able to step into the presidency.

Kerry, who was on Al Gore's list of possible vice presidential picks in 2000, said it would be a "disservice" to disclose the names of those he was considering.

`Huge chunk' of voters

Meanwhile yesterday, Bush made a campaign swing through California, where he added more money to the $153 million he has raised for his re-election bid. He appeared at two fund-raising events to benefit his campaign and one for the Republican Party.

An estimated $4 million will go toward the first ads of Bush's campaign. His aides, briefing reporters at the president's re-election headquarters in suburban Virginia, said the ads would run nationwide on at least a half-dozen cable channels, including CNN, MSNBC and ESPN.

Matthew Dowd, a Bush senior adviser, said the commercials would reach "a huge chunk" of the nation's voters - including at least as many independents and "soft Democrats" as Republicans. The ads also will appear more frequently in at least 16 states that Republicans regard as key to the outcome in November.

"Obviously, we know this election is going to be decided in a limited number of states," Dowd said. "We made decisions based on that."

One of the ads is in Spanish, a nod to the importance that Hispanics, the nation's fastest-growing ethnic group, could play in the fall.

States where the ads are running on local TV stations include Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Florida, Maine, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Washington and Oregon, the Associated Press reported.

As they intensify the campaign, Bush's aides are also trying to lower expectations. Dowd, who analyzes polling data for the president, said Kerry had wound up his party's primary fight "at a very, very high point."

Bush's early rounds of advertising would not "fundamentally" change the presidential contest, he said. Dowd predicted that Bush would either be tied with Kerry or trail the Democrat until the Republican convention in late August.

Public `conversation'

The ads were described by Bush as the start of "a conversation" with voters that would last eight months.

"We're 243 days until Election Day," Dowd said.

Mark McKinnon, a longtime Bush adman, said voters would ultimately decide "where we are in this country and if we're headed on the right path. [The ads] establish the message that under President Bush, who's been providing steady leadership in times of change, this country is headed in the right direction and on the right path."

The Bush campaign estimates that Kerry spent nearly $8 million during the Democratic contests on TV ads, most of them attacking Bush on such issues as Medicare, taxes, the environment and the war in Iraq. Dowd said Bush's ads were part of an effort to "correct" what was said during the primaries.

In one of his ads, Bush repeats the phrase "I know what we need to do" three times. "I know exactly where I want to lead this country," he says in footage shot at the White House last month.

The best-known line in Kerry's stump speech implicitly attacks Bush's intellect. In it, Kerry taunts the president to "bring it on," a challenge the senator unfailingly describes as "three simple words for him I know he understands."

Financial challenges

While Bush hits the airwaves and fattens his campaign's bank account, Kerry is being forced to rely on news coverage to reach voters. He is spending this week campaigning in states that are holding primaries next week.

Kerry's biggest challenge in coming weeks will be to raise enough money to counter Bush's commercials with advertising of his own. The Democrats' campaign will also rely on ads financed by the party and independent groups that plan to run high-profile anti-Bush ad blitzes.

One liberal organization, MoveOn.org, says it will run ads in 17 states, starting today, in response to Bush's opening ads. The group's commercials, at a reported cost of $1.9 million for a five-day run, attack Bush's economic policies and the administration's effort to eliminate overtime pay for millions of workers.

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