The political season has now officially opened.
By launching a TV ad campaign defending George W. Bush's handling of the war on terror, the Republican National Committee has started taking the president off his pedestal and into the public battle for reelection in November 2004.
The word "Democrat" is never uttered in the ad, which is being broadcast in Iowa and may air in New Hampshire soon, but the message is clear: The president's critics would have the nation retreat in the face of attack, "putting our national security in the hands of others." Leading Democratic presidential candidates responded angrily, charging the president with impugning their patriotism and reneging on a pledge not to politicize the war.
If nothing else, the ad "now positions the president as a candidate, potentially equal to those of the other side," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "The question becomes, what did the Republicans think the Democrats were gaining that they couldn't blunt without advertising?"
An incumbent president goes into a reelection campaign with tremendous institutional advantages - endless free news coverage honing his image as a leader, often from such lofty venues as the White House or, as last week, the British Parliament. In an additional sign of strength, Bush faces no primary challenger, and so he can zero in on the Democrats from the start, with a unified party behind him.
Still, Republicans are clearly showing unease with the Democrats' criticisms of the president's handling of Iraq, and concluded that they could not let the charges go unanswered. But in answering the charges, at least obliquely, the GOP is taking some risks.
The party is clearly hoping to revive memories of the president's handling of 9/11, which won him high marks for leadership, while not calling attention to the daily attacks on American soldiers in Iraq. The GOP is also being charged with playing the fear card once again, by using in the ad some of the most jarring lines of Bush's State of the Union speech from last January, such as this one: "It would take one vial, one canister, one crate slipped into this country to bring a day of horror like none we have ever known."
The GOP ad blurs the line between the "war against terror" (mentioned by name) and the "war in Iraq" (not mentioned), two battles the administration has linked, but which evoke different emotions among some voters. The "war against terror" implies homeland security and going after the perpetrators of 9/11 and terrorist attacks abroad that followed. The Iraq war conjures more conflicted emotions - a continued pride at toppling Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but also growing unease over American casualties and the lack of a firm end point for US involvement there.
As signs of a US economic turnaround grow, says independent pollster Del Ali, "Iraq is becoming [Bush's] albatross, and the economy could be his saving grace."
The Democratic National Committee, for its part, isn't sitting idly by in Iowa, where most of the party's presidential candidates gathered Monday afternoon for a debate.
The party produced its own ad for Iowa viewers, featuring Democratic strategist James Carville making a pitch for campaign donations: "If you've had enough of George W. Bush, pick up the phone right now," he said, providing a toll-free number.
Two Democratic candidates, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, also produced quick ads for Iowa to counter the Republican ad. Both candidates' ads show bits of the GOP spot. On Senator Kerry's ad, an announcer says, "George Bush's ad says he's being attacked for attacking the terrorists. No, Mr. President, America's united against terror."
On Governor Dean's ad, the announcer intones that Bush "misled the nation about weapons of mass destruction, and we went to war when we shouldn't have," a reminder of a different portion of the State of the Union speech, in which Bush made the questionable assertion that Iraq had tried to acquire yellowcake uranium from the African nation of Niger. Dean also flexed his fundraising muscles, asking his supporters to pay for the ad through a donation of $360,0000 by Tuesday.
For Bush and the Republicans, money is less of an issue. The president himself has already raised $100 million, most of which he will deploy after it becomes clear who the Democratic nominee will be. Furthermore, the Republican ad - paid for by the party, not Bush - costs only $100,000, so "for probably a modest investment, he can remind voters about 9/11, which clearly is his strongest suit," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University.
The Republicans have "lots of money," Professor Baker adds, "and [the ad] keeps the president's hand in, if he doesn't want the fall and winter to be a completely Democratic festival of beating up on him - particularly since so much criticism of him in the Democratic debates has centered on Iraq."