President Bush launched his general election advertising campaign yesterday with commercials that use images of terrorism and recession to depict him as a steady leader who is helping the country turn the corner.
Departing from the usual incumbent's script of boasting that things have improved on his watch, the three television ads emphasize the "tough times" Bush has faced and contend that he has made America "safer, stronger." None of the initial ads offers any new proposals for a second Bush term.
Asked if the Bush team was exploiting Sept. 11, 2001, with images of the World Trade Center attack, campaign manager Ken Mehlman said it was "the defining moment" of Bush's tenure. "It's critical to who this president is," he said.
Bush advisers, who may spend a record $100 million on advertising between now and the summer conventions, told reporters they are also preparing negative ads against the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). "We thought it was important to begin with a reminder of what the country's been through," said senior campaign adviser Matthew Dowd.
A GOP strategist close to the Bush team said the attack ads are likely to begin in a matter of weeks and are badly needed to "take Kerry down a couple of notches" after his string of victories.
Republican National Committee officials are also nearing a decision on how quickly to begin a separate ad campaign designed to draw distinctions between Bush and Kerry. "This is as clean a difference in approach to governing since Mondale-Reagan," said RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, referring to the 1984 election. "That's the last time it was this clear-cut."
Kerry has pounded Bush for months, and Republicans have begun raising questions about the senator's record and consistency; the Bush campaign will rely on surrogates to keep up the criticism until its first ads have finished airing.
The longest of Bush's new ads runs 60 seconds and features the president talking about his optimism, as well as images of the president speaking to the camera with Laura Bush at his side. The first lady, described by media adviser Mark McKinnon as "an enormous asset for this administration," offers her words of praise in the spot.
Bush campaign officials declined to say how much they will spend on the initial batch of ads. The low estimate is that they will cost at least $4.5 million, with Democrats who have tracked the opposition's purchases estimating that they could run closer to $10 million. The ads, and possibly others, will air over the next three weeks, some of them targeted at more than 60 local markets in about 17 states -- including Ohio, Florida, Missouri and Pennsylvania -- where the election is expected to be decided.
But in an unusual move for a presidential campaign, the Bush team is also making national cable buys on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, ESPN, Fox Sports and others, in an effort to reach a broader audience beyond viewers of news programs. One set of ads will air around a NASCAR event, with an audience that Bush has already targeted by making a guest appearance at the Daytona 500 in Florida last month.
In some cases, one official said, it was cheaper to buy a national package even though the campaign will be reaching viewers in states that are not likely to be close in November. A Spanish-language version of one ad, in which Bush does a brief Spanish voice-over, will air on selected local stations in Florida, the Southwest and the West.
One ad, using graphics instead of words, is strikingly downbeat in reciting Bush's challenges: "An economy in recession. A stock market in decline. A dot-com boom gone bust. Then, a day of tragedy."
Kerry's campaign responded with a statement about Bush's "unsteady leadership."
"He's saying he doesn't have any responsibility for the problems and we consider that revisionist history," said spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter.
The Bush ads are filled with images of firefighters, construction workers, children and the elderly, all of whom are paid actors or are in stock footage purchased by the campaign. The spots appear to be part of an effort to project empathy toward ordinary Americans and to avoid the charge leveled against Bush's father that he was out of touch with economic reality.
Rather than talk about his tax cuts or other accomplishments, Bush says, without elaboration, that he sees better times ahead: "As the economy grows, the job base grows and somebody who's looking for work will be more likely to find a job. . . . I know what we need to do to continue economic growth so people can find work, to raise the standards at schools so children can learn, to fulfill the promise to America's seniors."
A third ad, which emphasizes values, says "America rose to the challenge" through "freedom, faith, families and sacrifice."
Shanto Iyengar, chairman of Stanford University's communications department, said Bush's positive advertising is unlikely to have much impact because people know so much about him. In an online study in which 266 voters were shown ads and other promotional material from the candidates, he said, support for Kerry and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) rose by more than 10 percentage points, but Bush's numbers did not budge.
The huge fundraising advantage enjoyed by the Bush side will make it difficult for Kerry to match the coming barrage. Cutter promised "an aggressive fundraising strategy to allow us to compete on the air," adding that the campaign has raised $1.1 million online since Kerry's Super Tuesday victories.
The MoveOn Voter Fund, a liberal group, is starting a $1.9 million ad campaign in 17 states today that says Bush favors "corporate values" and "is not on our side."