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Bush, Kerry Campaigns Start Airing 'Attack' Ads - 2004-03-12

President Bush's re-election campaign began running television advertisements this week that are critical of his presumed Democratic opponent in the November election, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. This comes only days after pro-Kerry groups began running their own ads attacking the president.

The new ads on behalf of the president criticize Senator Kerry on two issues - his opposition to some of the Bush tax cuts and his insistence on a greater United Nations role in Iraq.

"And he wanted to delay defending America, until the United Nations approved. John Kerry-wrong on taxes, wrong on defense," the ad says.

The Kerry campaign launched a new ad barrage of its own in response, accusing the Bush re-election effort of sponsoring what it called "misleading and negative" messages.

Senator Kerry says the new Bush ad campaign is an attempt to distract voters from the real issues in the election.

"There is a Republican attack squad that specializes in trying to destroy people and be negative," he said. "I think the president needs to talk about the real priorities of our country."

The ad wars cap a particularly negative week in the early stages of the general election campaign between candidates Bush and Kerry.

Senator Kerry found himself in the spotlight earlier in the week, when he made some negative remarks about Republicans to factory workers in Chicago, apparently not realizing his microphone was on.

"We are just beginning to fight here," he said. "These are the most crooked, you know, lying group I've ever seen."

Those comments brought an immediate reaction from supporters of the president, including the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Illinois Congressman Dennis Hastert.

"If you ask me, he is getting off on the wrong foot in this campaign, name-calling," he said. "We are not lying when we say that Senator Kerry is the old-time Democrat [who likes to], tax and spend."

The president does mention Senator Kerry by name in his speeches now, hammering away at their differences over tax cuts.

"When you hear, 'we are going to repeal the tax cut', that is Washington, D.C. code for, 'I'm fixing to raise your taxes,' Mr. Bush said.

It is unusual for an incumbent president to refer to an opponent by name this early in the campaign. In the 1992 campaign, then-President George Bush did not mention Bill Clinton's name until August of that year.

"And we had the extraordinary development this past week of the incumbent president attacking his opponent by name, which is unprecedented at this stage," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C.

Mr. Ornstein and other experts say that the early negative tone of the campaign could turn voters off and could make it harder for both candidates to get their attention later on.

It is also an issue of concern for former President Bill Clinton, no stranger to the modern phenomenon of attack politics.

"I don't like it when we have to demonize people who are different from us," he said. "We try to turn three-dimensional human beings into two-dimensional cartoons. It turns the voters off."

Most analysts say it is too early to know what impact the negative tone of the campaign will have on voters come election time in November.

Analyst Norman Ornstein says voters traditionally view a presidential election as a referendum on the incumbent in the White House.

"When voters get to the fall, they are not going to look at George Bush and John Kerry in equal terms and say, 'Which one do we want as president?' The first thing they are going to ask is whether the president deserves another four years," he said.

Mr. Ornstein says both candidates are taking a risk in running a lot of ads this early in the campaign. He says most voters simply do not start paying attention to the campaign until the final weeks.