When the Bush reelection team rolled out its first TV ads last Thursday, chances are no one imagined that the firestorm over the use of 9/11 imagery would still be raging five days later.
At first blush, the controversy seemed to benefit George W. Bush. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks are the defining moment of his presidency, and any discussion - good, bad, or ugly - brings the public back to his days of 90-plus percent approval ratings for his leadership.
But with nearly eight months to go before the Nov. 2 election - promising an odyssey of endless debate on a vast array of issues - some of those early assumptions are in question. Can the president overdo his use of one of the most shocking events in American history? And how, in this inevitably political season, can his presumed opponent, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, overcome the inherent disadvantage he faces in challenging a self-described war president?
At a Monitor breakfast Monday, Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman faced questions about continuing the use of 9/11 images in the campaign - including during the Republican National Convention in New York City right before the third anniversary of the attacks.
"I can guarantee you that the president will and the campaign will, as we have done, handle any discussions about Sept. 11 in an appropriate way, which is in a respectful way," said Mr. Mehlman. "But as we said last week when we unveiled the ads, one of the key questions that Americans will have to answer ... is how to keep our country safer or, frankly, about how to keep the economy going forward."
On how to take the appropriate lessons from Sept. 11, 2001, and avoid another such attack, he added, "There is a clear difference between where the president is and where Senator Kerry is."
In an hourlong session with reporters, in which roughly one-quarter of the questions centered on 9/11's role in the race, Mehlman did not back down from the campaign's stance: that 9/11 is a central aspect of Bush's record - dealing a blow to the US economy and sending the nation into a global war on terror, in addition to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - and therefore a legitimate topic for the campaign.
Still, observers see risks in 9/11 for both candidates. Bush's campaign advisers are "going to have to think hard about everything they do," says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst for the Cook Political Report. "There are still a lot of people who are touched by scenes of 9/11. They just don't want to see them manipulated for somebody's political purposes."
For the Kerry campaign, Ms. Duffy adds, "the problem is overreaction" - a sign of defensiveness. The ads in question used all of four seconds of 9/11 imagery, though they included footage of flag-draped remains being removed from ground zero. "Everyone needs to take a huge step back and remember that the Democratic electorate is already fired up.... Now [Demo crats] are playing on a bigger field and there are a whole lot more voters out there."
Kerry is taking advantage of the focus on 9/11 to show his own knowledge on a range of foreign policy matters, including Haiti and Israel. In a radio address over the weekend, Kerry focused on last week's statement by the secretary of the Army that US forces were "not prepared" for the present conflict in Iraq. Separately, Kerry also accused Bush of stonewalling the 9/11 Commission. And he told Time magazine he plans to send a team to Iraq to evaluate the situation there.
All that, along with the public firestorm over Kerry's Vietnam War record versus Bush's stateside service in the Texas Air National Guard, provides an early glimpse into a campaign that isn't shying away from challenging the president on his own turf.
"The analysis that says any time we're talking about foreign policy issues we're advantaging Bush is an old analysis," says a Kerry adviser, noting the decline in Bush's approval ratings on Iraq and foreign policy. "The problem Bush has is there is no territory that's really good for him - with the possible exception of Sept. 11 itself. And he's gone a good distance toward polluting that for himself."
As for holding the GOP convention on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, the Kerry adviser believes the Bush campaign has backed itself into a corner: "There's almost nothing they can do that's going to be seen as appropriate."
Utimately, some say, Bush must solve the political conundrum his father was unable to do in 1992. After the first Gulf War, when the US forced Iraq out of Kuwait, the first President Bush tried to remind people of his success, notes political scientist John Mueller of Ohio State University. But the voters' response, he adds, was, "We know about the war, but what have you done for us lately, particularly on the economy?"
The big difference between the 1991 Gulf War and the second US war with Iraq, however, is that the latter is portrayed as part of the ongoing war on terror. For Bush I, the Gulf War quickly faded from memory. For Bush II, fear of more terrorism ranks high with the public. The latest Gallup Poll reports that 82 percent of the public sees terrorism as a "critical threat" to the US in the next 10 years.
• Sara B. Miller contributed to this report.