What began with a mocking image of John F. Kerry pursuing one of his favorite pastimes erupted yesterday into a bitter airwaves battle in which the Democratic presidential nominee tied President Bush to 1,000 U.S. deaths in Iraq and the beheading of two Americans this week.
The president's campaign struck first with an ad in which Kerry is windsurfing and is made to look slightly ridiculous by editing that has him moving right, left and back again as words on the screen accuse him of taking conflicting positions.
"In which direction would John Kerry lead?" a narrator asks. "Kerry voted for the Iraq war, opposed it, supported it and now opposes it again. He bragged about voting for the 87 billion [dollars] to support our troops before he voted against it. He voted for education reform and now opposes it. He claims he's against increasing Medicare premiums but voted five times to do so.
"John Kerry: Whichever way the wind blows."
The Kerry camp quickly returned fire, with spokesman Mike McCurry urging Bush to repudiate "a shameful advertisement that shows a disturbing disregard for those fighting and sacrificing in Iraq." McCurry told reporters that "people do not want to see lighthearted advertising when families are very heavy-hearted about what's happening to their loved ones."
Within hours, Kerry released a counterattack ad, set against an American flag, with a graphic saying "kidnappings and murders" and stark figures about Iraq: "1,000 U.S. casualties. 2 Americans beheaded just this week. The Pentagon admits terrorists are pouring into Iraq. In the face of the Iraq quagmire, George Bush's answer is to run a juvenile and tasteless attack ad.
"John Kerry has a plan for success. Get allies involved. Speed up the training of Iraqis. Take essential steps to get a free election next year. On Iraq, it's time for a new direction."
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt called the criticism "a bit frivolous," saying, "The president made clear there will be hard days in the war on terror." He said the windsurfing ad was "deadly serious" and pointed up "John Kerry's chronic vacillation, his indecision, his bending to political pressure."
In 2002, Kerry voted to authorize military action against Iraq, and he has subsequently strongly criticized the way Bush went to war with modest international support and the lack of planning for the violent postwar period. This was a marked change in emphasis but not necessarily a change of position. Kerry did say -- but did not brag -- that he had voted for $87 billion for military and reconstruction spending in Iraq and Afghanistan before voting against it. What he meant was that he supported an earlier version that would have repealed the Bush tax cuts for the most affluent taxpayers before voting against the measure in protest.
Kerry has not opposed "education reform" but defines it differently. He voted for Bush's No Child Left Behind law but has accused the president of subverting the effort by inadequately funding it.
The most memorable part of the ad, though, may be that it shows Kerry engaging in what some view as a pastime of wealthy elitists. The Republicans, especially Vice President Cheney, frequently ridicule Kerry's windsurfing hobby.
The Kerry campaign arranged a conference call with two military backers, one of whom, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and retired Adm. William J. Crowe Jr., called the ad "rather ridiculous."
The Iraq statistics cited in the Kerry ad are accurate. The line about terrorists pouring into Iraq is based on a remark earlier this month by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
This is the first time a Kerry ad has referred to Iraq as a "quagmire," a word often associated with the Vietnam War. Many critics have said that his suggestions to recruit more global allies and step up the training of Iraqis, which is underway, would have little impact on the violence there.
Two independent groups unveiled ads yesterday that echo the Bush and Kerry messages. The Progress for America Voter Fund uses a picture of Kerry windsurfing, saying that Kerry "surfs every direction on Iraq." Texans for Truth charges that Bush "walked away" from his National Guard duties, saying: "Mr. President, you owe our troops an explanation."