President Bush's reelection campaign has decided to focus its coming advertising barrage not only on John F. Kerry's record as a senator but also on his days as an antiwar activist, a House candidate and Massachusetts's lieutenant governor.
"The beauty of John Kerry is 32 years of votes and public pronouncements," said Mark McKinnon, the chief media adviser. McKinnon suggested a possible tag line: "He's been wrong for 32 years, he's wrong now."
Campaign officials said in interviews that they plan substantial positive advertising about the president, focused on his proposals rather than accomplishments, when they begin spending tens of millions of dollars on the airwaves next month. But they made it clear that many of the ads will accuse the Democratic front-runner of "hypocrisy," in McKinnon's word, in part by reaching back into his early career.
A 1970 Harvard Crimson interview in which Kerry said that U.S. troops should be deployed "only at the directive of the United Nations" will be fair game, the officials said. If they run ads about that period, they will probably focus on Kerry's high-profile opposition to the Vietnam War and comments about U.S. atrocities that could neutralize his record as a decorated veteran.
Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said: "These attacks and smears against us are just one more example of the fundamental need to change the direction of the nation from George Bush's extreme agenda to an agenda that meets the needs of mainstream America. And these attacks allow us to turn to real issues in response, which is precisely what the voters want to hear." As for the liberal label, she said: "The fact is John Kerry doesn't fit the mold Republicans throw Democrats in -- and they don't know what to do about it."
The president's team said it also has done substantial research on Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) in case he surges to the nomination and has even prepared a couple of ad scripts targeting long shot Dennis J. Kucinich, an Ohio congressman.
While the Bush camp is sitting on a $100 million war chest, strategists plan to target the ad blitz to fewer than 20 states -- such as Florida, Wisconsin, Missouri, Iowa, New Hampshire and New Mexico -- that were most closely contested in 2000.
By taking the rare step of preparing for a general-election ad blitz five months before the party conventions, the Bush team is following the lead of President Bill Clinton, whose early 1996 commercials helped frame the election by tying GOP nominee Robert J. Dole to unpopular House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). The Bush ads would air at a time when Kerry may lack the resources to effectively respond, and in any event the money must be spent before the fall, when both nominees will be limited to $75 million in public financing.
From the campaign's Arlington headquarters, McKinnon, a former Democrat, is directing an expanded 12-person media team that includes Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer of New York, veterans of the last Bush campaign; Alex Castellanos of Alexandria, who worked for Dole's 1996 campaign; Fred Davis of Hollywood, who helped elect Sen. Elizabeth Dole in North Carolina; Frank Guerra of San Antonio, who has worked for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R); Scott Howell of Dallas, a former Karl Rove associate; Chris Mottola of Philadelphia, who also worked for Dole's presidential bid; Vada Hill, who is credited with making the talking-dog commercials for Taco Bell; and Madison Avenue adman Harold Kaplan, who has written Kentucky Fried Chicken spots.
Bush is laying out the broad advertising themes but not micromanaging the process, officials said, adding that they have already prepared scripts and tested possible ads with focus groups.
The president's advisers are keenly aware that the Kerry camp will accuse them of unfairly attacking the senator, but they say the public realizes that Bush has been under assault during the Democratic primaries, which has contributed to a marked decline in the president's standing in the polls.
"We have a job to do to correct the false impression given about us and the false impression about Kerry himself," said Matthew Dowd, Bush's director of polling and media. "This guy did 15 attack ads on us in the last few months."
The campaign's biggest advantage, Dowd said, is that Bush is a well-defined figure, even among those who are not supporters, while voters are barely familiar with Kerry's record. "I don't think most of America has a clue about John Kerry," McKinnon said.
In a departure from the approach taken by Bush's father against Clinton in 1992, the campaign does not plan to argue that Kerry is not qualified to be president. Instead, officials said, the ads will depict Kerry as a politician who says one thing and does another. This would echo criticism made by some of Kerry's Democratic rivals, who said he took conflicting positions on such issues as the Iraq war.
Acknowledging that Bush has received major financial support from corporations, McKinnon said: "The issue is hypocrisy in saying you're going to take on the special interests, not who took the most special interest money. You don't hear the president in the Oval Office railing against the special interests. You do hear John Kerry railing against the special interests." The campaign has previewed this theme in an online video calling Kerry "unprincipled" and "brought to you by the special interests."
Kerry aide Cutter scoffed at that line of attack, saying Bush "has taken a record amount of special interest money and rewarded them handsomely by inviting them to rewrite the nation's environmental, health and corporate tax laws."
Other Bush ads will highlight Kerry's record on tax increases and defense spending cuts, Dowd said, offering a possible refrain: "John Kerry says he's going to help the middle class with taxes, but here's who he is." Dowd said the advertising may also include such hot-button social issues as gay marriage and abortion rights as part of a broader argument about "what values you represent."
A "huge challenge" for the campaign is to produce ads that successfully argue "that the economy is better, that we're moving in the right direction," McKinnon said. "We have to talk to the voter about changing times, about how the war on terror has had an impact on the economy."
Despite increasing public doubts about the Iraq war and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, Dowd sees the war as "an asset" because ads can frame the issue as Bush combating terrorism to make the country safer. "It's part of who this president is," he said. Still, the strategists said elections are about the future and their ads will not dwell on Bush's record as much as look ahead to his second-term proposals.
The Republican National Committee, which is sitting on more than $30 million, could join in the aerial assault on Kerry, but officials there said no decision has been made. The Democratic National Committee has raised about two-thirds of the $15 million it hopes to spend on ads to help Kerry counter the Bush barrage.