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The Nation | THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Bush Spot Fuels Ad Flurry, Attacks Kerry

March 26, 2004|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush lashed his presumed Democratic challenger as a proponent of taxing Social Security benefits and raising gasoline taxes in a new television commercial, released Thursday, that underscored the increasingly acrid tone of the presidential race.

The president's advertisement, expected to target 18 key states, is the fourth to attack John F. Kerry by name since the Bush campaign went on air three weeks ago. Its central premise, expanding on recent Republican attacks, is that Kerry's record shows him in favor of raising taxes in a variety of ways -- pointing to what Kerry would do if elected president, Bush aides said.

"John Kerry's economic record -- troubling," the ad's script says, citing the Massachusetts senator's past support for a 50-cent gas tax and taxes on Social Security benefits.

Kerry's camp issued a flurry of rebuttals Thursday, saying the senator discarded the gas-tax proposal years ago and a tax enacted in 1993 on wealthy Social Security beneficiaries was part of a fiscally responsible Democratic budget policy.

Kerry's aides arranged for former chief of staff to President Clinton, Leon E. Panetta, to denounce the ad in a conference call with reporters. Panetta said Bush has "a credibility problem with the American people."

But the Republican incumbent and the Democratic nominee-in-waiting were not alone in hurling charges.

Democratic-allied groups were preparing to target Bush early next week with TV ads that question his leadership in the battle against terrorism and on economic issues.

The script of one ad, prepared by the liberal MoveOn.org Voter Fund, quotes former Bush counter-terrorism advisor Richard Clarke as saying the president missed chances to focus on terrorist threats before the Sept. 11 attacks. Eli Pariser, the committee's executive director, said the group had raised more than $200,000 to place the ad on CNN early next week, and perhaps on other channels.

Another ad, sponsored by the anti-Bush group Media Fund, challenges the president on the economy and accuses him of raiding Social Security funds "to pay for a tax cut for millionaires." A spokesman for the fund, Jim Jordan, said the ad had been placed in 17 states.

Even though the election is more than seven months away, the back-and-forth over TV airwaves has shown a surprising degree of intensity. By contrast, in the 2000 presidential race, Bush and his Democratic opponent, Al Gore, did not begin the general election TV ad battle until June.

This time, Bush sought to set a positive tone at the outset. About three weeks ago, Bush's team released his first batch of ads, none of which mentioned Kerry. Bush's aides said they contrasted with months of paid television attacks that Kerry and other Democrats had launched against the president during the primary and caucus races.

Now Bush is matching the Democratic opposition blow for blow, landing more punches directly on Kerry than the senator is throwing.

The intensity of these initial exchanges shows the potential for a heated and lengthy 2004 election. Some analysts lamented what that could do to the presidency.

"Everything is done with an eye toward reelection, and the explicit campaigning, including the explicit negative campaigning, has become incessant," said Lee Sigelman, a George Washington University political scientist who studies campaign ads. "This seems to have changed the tenor of American politics, making it shriller, more partisan, more contentious."

But Kenneth Goldstein, a University of Wisconsin expert on political ads, noted that Bush had coupled his attacks on Kerry with ads that aimed to burnish his own image. On Thursday, for instance, as he attacked Kerry on taxes, Bush also released a sunny 30-second spot promoting his economic agenda and tax cuts as a tonic for small business.

So far, Goldstein said in a report issued Thursday, more than a quarter of Bush's TV spending has been on ads critical of Kerry.

Goldstein said Bush was forced to make up ground lost to the Democrats in the months before Kerry all but clinched the nomination on March 2.

"The slate was not wiped clean once the Democratic nominee became apparent," he said. "And the fact is that Kerry and the other Democratic candidates created a barrage of advertisements critical of Bush, with powerful messages, in many of the most competitive primary states which also happen to be some of the most important general election states."

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