WASHINGTON — President Bush has authorized his campaign to broadcast a television commercial in which a former commandant of the Marine Corps says Republican presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan is not fit to become commander-in-chief, senior aides said Monday.
The decision reflects the depth of anxiety within the Bush camp over the threat posed by Buchanan and was made by the President during a rare Sunday night meeting with his most senior advisers in the private quarters of the White House.
Apart from the advertisement featuring retired Gen. Paul X. Kelley, the Bush campaign has prepared for Southern radio stations a tape recording in which the officer says Buchanan does not have "one iota of background or experience" to effectively take charge of the nation's armed forces.
The advertisement, prepared for use as early as today in Georgia, where Buchanan has focused his resources for his next challenge to Bush, marks the most direct White House assault against the insurgency by the conservative commentator.
Throughout the New Hampshire primary campaign, Bush had resisted recommendations that he use television ads to counter criticism by his sharp-tongued rival. But he was said to have changed his mind after learning that Buchanan, who opposed the U.S. role in the Persian Gulf War, had begun to hammer away at him over the Georgia airwaves as well.
"He said 'fine,' " a senior White House official said of the go-ahead given by Bush to a commercial the official said would "challenge Buchanan's position on Desert Storm."
Bush advisers said the advertisement is intended to tap a deep reservoir of patriotism in a state that boasts a number of major Army bases and sent many thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia.
A campaign official declined to make the full ad text available to a reporter or describe its contents in detail. But the official insisted that its message was "comparative" rather than negative and would focus on Buchanan's stance on the Gulf War.
"It's about who had faith in those good men and women in our armed forces, and who didn't," the official said.
In the radio spot, according to a transcript made available by the Bush campaign, Kelley says: "Pat Buchanan, to the best of my knowledge, has never visited a military installation. He has never talked to any military people. He has certainly never talked to the senior leadership of this country.
"Pat Buchanan's lack of background and understanding about the military Establishment, his irresponsible assertions and lack of support for the President during Operation Desert Storm do not, in my opinion, make him an attractive candidate for the Republican Party," the retired general says.
Kelley, 63, was traveling on Monday, his office said, and was not available for comment. He retired as the Marine Corp's top officer in 1987, after a 37-year career.
The decision by the Bush camp to move away from a high road in campaign advertising--even as Bush himself avoids any direct attacks on his opponent--marked the latest in a series of shifts intended to help the President blunt the conservative challenge from Buchanan.
With the White House already having moved to purge policies and personnel regarded as potential targets for the right, the Sunday night meeting was described by senior officials as part of a wider reappraisal of a campaign stunned by Buchanan's strong showing in New Hampshire.
Among those assembled by Bush and involved in the discussion about how directly the White House ought to attack Buchanan were Vice President Dan Quayle, campaign chairman Robert S. Teeter and White House Chief of Staff Samuel K. Skinner, sources said.
The advisers were said to have told Bush that Buchanan had defied their warnings and was airing ads in Georgia blasting Bush for his failure to live up to his pledge of "no new taxes" and for not asking Congress to act on a family tax exemption increase of $500 per child--a measure Bush had touted in his State of the Union address.
Among the measures Bush authorized in response to the new Buchanan attacks, officials said, was a second commercial reiterating his support for that tax exemption and saying that it was simply not included in the seven points on which he is seeking immediate action by Congress.
With the White House and campaign organization increasingly unsettled by the Buchanan challenge, Bush is increasingly being brought into reviews of campaign strategy, one aide said.
The need to crisscross the South in the two weeks leading up to Super Tuesday primaries on March 10 will force Bush to spend most of his time on the road, beginning with a six-day trip that begins today in San Francisco and Los Angeles and then heads to Texas and Georgia.
"We don't have a lot of choice between now and March 10," one aide said.
On Monday, Bush divided his time between official chores and campaign activities, focusing on his economic program in a speech to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce group, meeting for 30 minutes with President Alfredo Cristiani of El Salvador, and then speaking to a campaign rally in suburban Bethesda, Md.
Complaining about congressional inaction on his economic plan, he said: "The stark and sorry fact is Congress so far deserves an 'F,' they deserve a failing grade."
He said the Democrats' tax-cut plan would amount to 25 cents a day.
"Even a tooth fairy can do a little better than that one," Bush said.