With voters expressing anxiety about Iraq, nuclear attacks and the threat of terrorism in the first presidential election since Sept. 11, 2001, John F. Kerry and his supporters are adopting President Bush's strategy of playing on the public's security fears and sometimes using incendiary charges to stoke them.
Kerry, the Democratic National Committee and party officials have warned voters in recent weeks, sometimes without evidence, that a second Bush term could lead to greater casualties and another Vietnam in Iraq, a military draft, a secret call-up of reservists and even a nuclear attack on U.S. soil. They are also suggesting Osama bin Laden could remain a haunting and elusive threat unless the Democratic presidential nominee takes charge.
In a dramatic strategic shift that two of his top advisers called "high-risk," Kerry and his campaign are using a string of speeches, statements and television ads to argue that the United States will be more susceptible to higher casualties in Iraq and future terrorism threats at home if Bush is reelected.
At the same time, Kerry's friends, surrogates and financial supporters are using ominous language to warn of catastrophes, including the potential of a "mushroom cloud," if Bush wins. "It's definitely riskier, because Kerry is making people think about what we see in polls people are reluctant to think about," Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said. "Nobody wants to think about beheadings, casualties or fatalities."
Some Democrats worry that Kerry could inadvertently help Bush by spooking voters about dangers ahead, because polls have consistently shown the president with a clear edge on whom voters consider the strongest leader and the one most able to deal with terrorism. Recent public polls suggest Kerry's strategy so far has not changed the dynamics of the race.
A senior Kerry adviser said the only way Bush can be defeated is if Democrats win, or neutralize, the debate on Iraq by playing up chaos and casualties there and convince voters the war undermined the hunt for bin Laden and other terrorists. The adviser said Kerry will make the argument the central theme of tomorrow's debate, when millions of Americans get their first look at the two candidates side by side.
The Democratic offensive comes as Bush and Republicans are increasingly suggesting the election of Kerry would better the chances of another Sept. 11, or worse.
With both campaigns embracing what often amounts to the politics of fear, voters are getting a heavier-than-ever dose of speeches and television ads from Bush, Kerry and political groups designed to convince them the other ticket would make the world more dangerous and increase the likelihood of casualties or catastrophe. Historians say this tactic is more pervasive than in past presidential campaigns, including Jimmy Carter's portrayal of Ronald Reagan as a warmonger in 1980 and Lyndon B. Johnson's famous "daisy girl" ad that warned of nuclear war if Barry M. Goldwater was elected in 1964.
To be sure, Bush has spent more time and money trying to convince voters his opponent cannot be trusted to keep the country safe in troubled times, sometimes slicing and dicing the Democratic nominee's words to create a false impression of Kerry's positions, analysts say. For instance, Brooks Jackson of the nonpartisan FactCheck.org said a recent Bush ad was "egregious" in splicing together footage of Kerry remarks to make his "reasonably consistent stand on Iraq sound like he was all over the lot." In the past, the Bush campaign has cited Jackson's organization as a reliable, independent source about ads.
Bush again pounded Kerry as weak on terrorism with a new ad that began running yesterday in several states, including on one of the few radio stations with clear reception in Spring Green, Wis., where Kerry is preparing for tomorrow's debate. "Weakness invites those who would do us harm," the ad states.
"It's not surprising that both campaigns are looking for the leverage point: scaring the hell out of the American public about what would happen if the other guy wins," said Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University's College of Communication. "The surprise is: Why did Kerry wait so long to start slugging at Bush?"
The answer is that Kerry's team had gambled on building up the Massachusetts senator's image in the belief that voters were familiar with Bush's weaknesses and the turmoil in Iraq. "We don't have to join their game," Kerry adviser Tad Devine said in July after Bush ads repeatedly depicted Kerry as indecisive and weak on defense. At the time, Kerry calculated -- aides now say miscalculated -- that his Vietnam and Senate résumé would be enough to satisfy voters of his ability to serve as commander in chief and allow him to focus more heavily on health care, education and the economy.
But starting two weeks ago, Kerry scrapped plans to focus on domestic issues when public and private polling showed Bush pulling away in several key areas, including whom voters trust most to win in Iraq, defeat terrorism and keep the United States safe.
Kerry launched his new offensive on Sept. 15 with a quick strike on Bush's handling of Iraq, saying the president is creating a "fantasy world" by denying casualties, indiscriminate killings and chaos throughout the country. Soon after, Kerry charged that Bush had a secret plan to call up reservists and National Guard members if he is reelected, though Kerry's campaign has not offered any evidence to support the allegation. A few days later, Kerry said it is possible the draft would be reinstated under Bush, which the White House vehemently denied.
Virtually every day, Kerry has warned that if Bush is reelected, the situation in Iraq will worsen and continue to divert attention from nuclear threats and terrorism.
One Kerry ad appears to hold the president accountable -- and paint him as out of touch -- for "over 1,000 U.S. soldiers dead, kidnappings, even beheadings of Americans." It continues: "Still, Bush has no plan what to do in Iraq. How can you solve a problem when you can't see it?" Another spot blames Bush for "the Iraq quagmire" and points out that "the Pentagon admits terrorists are pouring into Iraq" -- suggesting that the war has actually made Americans less safe.
Democrats and outside groups are striking a more ominous tone. "A mushroom cloud over any American city is the ultimate nightmare, and the risk is all too real," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) said Monday. "The war in Iraq has made the mushroom cloud more likely -- not less likely -- and it should never have happened."
The DNC this week aired a commercial mocking Bush for not fulfilling his vow to capture bin Laden "dead or alive," and a new ad yesterday cited the 1,000 U.S. combat deaths and said of Bush: "But no one can tell him he's wrong."
Kerry's allies are also trying to personalize the war. Cindy Sheehan, a California Democrat whose son was killed in Iraq, will appear in a tearful ad being released today by the liberal group Real Voices. "I thought the president was rushing us into this war," she said in an interview yesterday. "I just felt betrayed."
George Soros, one of the Democrats' biggest financial backers, has begun a speaking tour to issue his warning of the long-term international consequences of reelecting Bush. Wesley K. Clark, who is advising Kerry, said Soros is "sounding the alarm for the American people."