The U.S. presidential election may be six and one-half months away, but the Kerry and Bush campaigns are already hitting the television airwaves with a barrage of advertisements normally reserved for the final weeks of an election campaign.

For weeks now, the Bush re-election campaign has been running television ads in 18 states that both parties view as critical battlegrounds in the November election.

The Bush ad campaign is an effort to portray Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, as a liberal who favors tax increases and has a habit of changing his positions on various issues. "Raising taxes is a habit of Kerry's," says the ad. "He has supported higher gasoline taxes 11 times. Maybe, John Kerry just doesn't understand what his ideas mean to the rest of us."

The Kerry campaign is now responding with an ad campaign of its own that intends to allow the candidate to present himself to the public in his own words.

The ad war has been driven into the background in recent days because of the situation in Iraq. Senator Kerry has been critical of the president's handling of Iraq, calling on the administration to line up more international help.

Kerry surrogates have been arguing his case on American television. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe debated the issue on NBC's 'Today' program. "You know what, George Bush misled the American public," said Mr. McAuliffe. "They politicized and embellished the intelligence data. John Kerry believed the commander in chief when he told him things that turned out not to be true."

On the other side, Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie pointed out that Senator Kerry supported the congressional resolution that gave the president the approval to use military force against Saddam Hussein. "Senator Kerry, as a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, had the same access to intelligence that President Bush had," said Mr. Gillespie, "and he made a very forceful case, as a member of that committee, in support of the war in Iraq, before he reversed himself under pressure in the Democratic primaries from Howard Dean."

The Bush campaign has begun running a new television ad that questions Senator Kerry's support of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Political analysts say the Bush ads targeting Senator Kerry have had an impact in slightly increasing a negative public view of the Massachusetts senator in several recent polls. But the experts also say the race remains virtually even, with the president struggling to defend his policy in Iraq and the administration's handling of the terrorist threat prior to the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

Norm Ornstein is a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington. He says despite the Bush campaign's efforts to influence the public's view of Senator Kerry, it is more likely that the election will come down to what the voters think of President Bush. "When an incumbent is running, it is about the incumbent," said Mr. Ornstein. "Kerry has to [talk about] having plans, but that is about it. In the end, the judgment that people will make is based on the question, does [President Bush] deserve another four years?"

Most analysts believe the election will be decided for the most part on three key issues - the situation in Iraq, the president's handling of the war on terrorism and the health of the U.S. economy.