President Bush's reelection campaign will begin running ads in key battleground states around the country tomorrow that focus on the president's leadership on the economy and on the war on terrorism, and feature firefighters and footage from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The multimillion-dollar ad blitz comes at a time when the president's job approval rating has been slipping and he has fallen slightly behind in polls to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination in Super Tuesday last night.
The ads strike a positive tone and don't mention Kerry. But the use of Sept. 11 imagery may cause some controversy and provide ammunition for Democrats who have long accused the president of exploiting the tragedy for political purposes.
"I know exactly where I want to lead this country," Bush says in one ad. "I'm optimistic about America because I believe in the people of America."
At a press briefing this morning at Bush campaign headquarters in Arlington, Bush media adviser Mark McKinnon addressed a question about the use of Sept. 11 images, saying "obviously 9/11 was the defining moment of these times," and that the president's response to attacks "are important parts of this administration's record."
McKinnon, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman and chief strategist Matthew Dowd refused to divulge details of where the ads were running or the cost of the media buy. But they described it as a "moderate" purchase that would be seen on national cable systems and in select markets around the country.
Later, a Bush campaign official said that the buy would cost about $4.4 million for now but could grow. He said the ads would run, at least initially, for three weeks.
A senior Democratic official in Washington who tracks the competition's ad strategy said the Bush campaign had purchased air time in about 50 media markets in 17 states: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
The Bush campaign appears to be focusing resources on key battleground states from 2000 that could again be up for grabs this November.
Bush advisers said today that the ads are meant to show that the country is safer and stronger because of Bush and to make the case that Bush's policies have put America on the right path.
"We thought it important to start with a setting the table of where the country's been over the last three years," said Dowd. He called the ads -- one 60-second spot and three 30-second spots, including one in Spanish -- the beginning of a conversation that will last until the election. Dowd said ads would be on the air consistently, though not necessarily every day, until Nov. 2.
The commercials are the first phase of what is expected to be a multimillion-dollar advertising onslaught. They carry the slogan: "Steady leadership in times of change."
Bush has more than $100 million in the bank, a large part of which will be spent on TV ads over the next few months.
The Bush campaign has predicted it will raise in excess of $170 million overall, which will likely far exceed what Kerry can raise.
"President Bush has provided the kind of steady leadership that the American people are looking for," Mehlman said. "He has made this country more secure at home and abroad, and his pro-growth policies are helping to create jobs and strengthen the economic recovery. These ads share the president's optimism about America's direction."
A statement issued by the Kerry campaign today blasts Bush's ad campaign as "revisionist history," and attacks his record on jobs, federal spending and domestic issues: "He said he would create 3.9 million jobs, but 3 million more people have lost their jobs. He said he would make health care more affordable, but 2.8 million more have lost their health insurance. He said he would cut the federal debt by $1 trillion, but his policies have added $1 trillion more, leaving the federal debt at over $7 trillion. Most astonishing, George Bushs ad features a shot of the wreckage of that tragic September day almost 3 years ago, and the firefighters who so bravely worked to save lives.
In an interview on Tuesday, Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie downplayed the Bush campaign's money advantage, suggesting that independent expenditures by pro-Democratic groups and individuals would more than even the playing field.
"Well there's not really a money advantage when you look at the outside groups, and the fact is that these organizations like the AFL-CIO, Moveon.org, Americans Coming
Together -- the George Soros funded organization -- they've said they'll spend between $560-$620 million to defeat the President this year," Gillespie said. "And I'm not sure that's legal, but that's what they said. And if that's the case, then those who seek to defeat the president in 2004 will outspend those of us who seek to reelect him."
Democrats scoff at that notion, noting that the Bush campaign, the RNC and various independent groups outspent Al Gore, the DNC and assorted Democratic-leaning groups by an estimated $178 million in 2000.
"The president is going to set all kinds of fundraising records," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Tony Welch. "And somehow [Gillespie] manages to say with a straight face that they're going to be at a disadvantage. Nobody believes that."
washingtonpost.com staff writer John Beecham and the Associated Press contributed to this report.