WASHINGTON - President Bush's campaign is unleashing a direct and meticulously planned assault on John Kerry's national security credentials this week with a nearly $10 million advertising drive intended to undermine what both sides describe as Kerry's potentially greatest asset.
The tough television attack advertisements, combined with a speech Vice President Dick Cheney will deliver in Missouri tomorrow, reflect what both sides see as an increasingly critical question: whether Kerry can persuade Americans that he would be a strong enough president in a time of war. The advertisements will begin tomorrow night and will be broadcast on stations in nine states and on some national cable networks.
The assault on Kerry comes as Bush has been facing discouraging news from Iraq and challenges to his response to warnings about the Sept. 11 attacks. The White House has been cheered by polls suggesting that those developments have not undermined Bush's standing.
But this new challenge to Kerry also coincides with the first anniversary on May 1 of the speech Bush gave on an aircraft carrier off the coast of California celebrating the fall of Baghdad. While Bush's advisers said the timing of the new advertisements had nothing to do with that, they said they were girding for attacks from Kerry and Democrats, who are planning to use the anniversary to stage challenges to Bush's policy in Iraq.
The Bush advertisements open at a military staging ground somewhere in the desert, teeming with tanks, fighter jets and soldiers. But the materiel begins to vanish from the screen as an announcer ominously lists the military spending cuts Kerry supported.
"John Kerry has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the war on terror," the announcer says.
Strategists from both parties said that national security remained the threshold issue for Kerry, meaning he must establish his credibility as a potential commander in chief before undecided voters will listen to his appeal on other issues. From the moment Kerry first began running for president, he argued to Democrats that he could at least neutralize the president's advantage on foreign policy because of his status as a decorated Vietnam veteran and his years in the Senate.
But even some Democrats say Kerry has yet to accomplish that. Jim Gerstein, the executive director of Democracy Corps, a Democratic research organization, said focus groups surveyed by his organization had found that Kerry has yet to break that barrier, though he said that television advertisements Kerry began broadcasting last week would help him.
"The role of commander in chief is a bigger part of this election than it has been, and because of that there's a higher threshold to pass," he said. "If you don't pass that threshold, they won't consider you as president."
Steve Elmendorf, Kerry's deputy campaign manager, said Kerry's credibility on national security would increase over the next few months, particularly as voters see commercials that show Kerry asserting that he would be a strong president on terrorism, and others that focus on his years in Vietnam.
"George Bush is the incumbent president of the United States, and I think the incumbent is always going to start with a significant advantage over a challenge on national security issues," Elmendorf said. "But we are confident that when John Kerry stands on a stage with George Bush this fall, people ... are going to see in John Kerry someone they are willing to entrust the nation's security to."
But Bush's advisers said they hoped this latest in a continuing crush of advertisements directed at Kerry would prevent him from clearing that hurdle.
Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, argued that Kerry's biography and resume would not be enough to offset a series of votes cast and statements made over the years that the Republicans would use to raise questions about Kerry's ability to be a tough president on national security.
"I think ultimately the most important thing that people want to see on the war on terror is, what is your vision for dealing with it and what is your record," he said. "With Senator Kerry, when you add it all up, what the American people see is someone underestimate the risk of terrorism, misunderstand the nature of the war and not offer a resolute approach to make sure America is protected."
Bush's new advertising campaign includes nine spots specifically tailored for nine swing states in which some of the weapons programs Kerry has opposed are made.