Kerry Ad Focuses on Domestic Agenda
Aides Try to Shift Campaign's Tone
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2004; Page A07
After two weeks of televised assaults by President Bush's campaign, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) unveiled an ad about his domestic agenda yesterday in what Kerry's strategists described as an effort to change the tone of a resoundingly negative election season.
While the new spot offers no new details on Kerry's stance on health care, taxes and education, it uses images of the presumed Democratic nominee in Vietnam -- and with police officers and construction workers -- to make the case that "John Kerry has fought for his country" for 35 years.
Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, said Bush is running "an unprecedented negative campaign" because he has "no positive case to make." Senior strategist Tad Devine, accusing the president of "distorted" advertising, said the campaign concluded it was more important to address voters' bread-and-butter concerns than be drawn into constantly responding to Bush's on-air attacks.
"We're simply not going to allow that to happen," Devine said. "That is not advantageous to John Kerry."
Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt responded, "John Kerry's campaign seems to be summed up this way: I went to Vietnam, yadda, yadda, yadda, I want to be president. He would have the American people ignore his 19-year record in the United States Senate. . . . In the case of John Kerry, the truth hurts."
In the commercial, which will air in 17 tightly contested states from Florida to Washington, Kerry says: "We need to get some things done in this country: affordable health care, rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy, really investing in our kids." An announcer adds: "John Kerry -- the military experience to defend America. A new plan to create jobs and put our economy back on track."
The ad sidesteps Bush's recent charges that Kerry's $900 billion health plan would require higher taxes, or campaign manager Ken Mehlman's assertion that there is a $1 trillion gap between the Massachusetts senator's spending and tax proposals -- an issue that Bush strategists say is likely to be highlighted in a new ad this week.
The Kerry camp fought back with a statement accusing Bush of a $10 trillion tax gap, citing a 10-year estimate that the federal budget deficit will be $5.2 trillion, compared with the projected $5.6 trillion surplus that Bush inherited.
Kerry aides dismissed suggestions that the candidate is trying to repair his image after a couple of rough weeks. They say they are still introducing Kerry to voters -- military experience is "a very strong component," Devine said -- and believe they will raise enough money to lay out more of his agenda in the coming months. "Our media buy is going to be continuous," Devine said.
The political terrain is more hostile now than during Kerry's march to the nomination. A Newsweek poll released Sunday said Kerry's approval ratings have dropped from 56 percent in February to 51 percent, while his unfavorability rating climbed from 27 percent to 36 percent. Kerry is running even with or slightly behind the president in polls after enjoying a lead earlier this month.
The Bush campaign has spent $13.5 million on advertising this month, according to industry estimates, while the Kerry camp spent $2 million on its counterattack ad on defense last week and says this week's buy will be larger. Devine said his side matched the president's spending on the negative ad -- Bush has aired positive spots simultaneously. A Bush official said his side's financial edge is diluted when ads by liberal groups are included.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company