Bush's ads turn negative, call Kerry wrong on issues

Early attacks on senator seen as effort to define his record before he does

March 12, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's campaign unleashed its first negative ads yesterday, attacking Sen. John Kerry as a candidate who would raise taxes by billions of dollars once in office and who would weaken the nation's defenses against terrorism.

Set to ominous music, one new television ad - ready to run nationwide on cable television and on local stations in 18 targeted states - says Kerry's plans in his first 100 days in office would include raising taxes "by at least $900 billion" and weakening the Patriot Act that is "used to arrest terrorists and protect America."

The ad finishes with: "John Kerry: Wrong on taxes. Wrong on defense."

The campaign's decision to go after Kerry in its advertising almost eight months before the election appears part of a strategy by the cash-rich Bush team to define its Democratic opponent early, before the Massachusetts senator has time to campaign heavily and characterize his own record for voters.

The Bush campaign released a similar radio ad yesterday to air in the same markets. And it unveiled a separate television ad that is more positive, saying that Americans face a choice in November and that "we can go forward with confidence, resolve and hope. Or we can turn back to the dangerous illusion that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat."

Matthew Dowd, the Bush's campaign's chief strategist, said in a conference call with reporters that now is a "window of opportunity" to contrast the president's record and agenda against Kerry's. He noted that, on the heels of some closely fought Democratic primaries, "voters are paying very close attention" right now.

The ads are likely to spark a debate over the wisdom of negative campaigning, and they put Bush in a position in which no president has ever found himself. New campaign finance laws require presidential candidates to state in their ads that they endorse the message. So Bush yesterday became the first commander in chief to tie himself so explicitly to negative advertising.

Just before the narrator begins attacking Kerry in the negative television ad, images of Bush flash across the screen as the president says: "I'm George W. Bush. And I approve this message."

The new ads immediately triggered a public battle between the two campaigns over who is more negative. Bush campaign aides said Kerry began airing negative ads attacking Bush in September.

The Bush team also referred to its own ads as "contrast ads" and not "negative ads."

Mark McKinnon, the campaign's advertising consultant, explained that negative ads "go beyond someone's record and vision" and said that Bush's new commercials merely pointed out contrasts between the candidates.

Kerry disagreed. In a statement, the senator said Bush had "launched a negative advertising campaign against me."

"What's most interesting about this new ad is what's not in it," Kerry said. "This president can't talk about his positive vision for America because at each turn he has put this nation on the wrong track." The candidate added that "what you're seeing is the last gasp of air from the failed Bush Administration that has no record to run on and nothing but more of the same failed policies to offer the American people."

On Wednesday, the senator lashed out at his Republican critics, calling them "crooked" and "lying" at a moment when he did not realize a microphone was catching his remarks.

Yesterday, Kerry's campaign called Bush's charge that his opponent would raise taxes by $900 billion "completely false."

Bush campaign aides acknowledged that Kerry has, in fact, called for the repeal of only $250 billion in tax cuts - mostly for wealthy Americans. They said they came up with the $900 billion because that is the estimated cost of Kerry's proposals to expand health coverage, and because Kerry has insisted he will be able to pay for them without increasing the deficit - meaning, in the eyes of Bush's campaign, taxes would have to be raised.

Kerry aides have said the senator will explain in coming weeks how he intends to fund his proposals.

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist and author of the book, Presidents as Candidates: Inside the White House for the Presidential Campaign, said yesterday that she was surprised Bush has decided to go negative so early.

Bush's advisers, she said, are likely troubled that his poll numbers have been slipping and do not want to repeat the mistakes of the president's father, who was widely viewed as starting to aggressively campaign too late, after Democratic attacks had resonated with voters.

"I thought they would really try to preserve the presidential aura," Tenpas said. "But now they've launched into president as candidate instead of president as leader. They are clearly feeling the pressure." She added that "if you are an independent voter - and that is who they are trying to reach - sometimes negative ads work well. And sometimes they really turn you off."

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