WASHINGTON – President Bush unleashed the first negative ads of the general election campaign Thursday, accusing Democratic rival John Kerry of seeking to raise taxes by $900 billion and wanting to "delay defending America."
"John Kerry: Wrong on taxes. Wrong on defense," says an announcer in a new 30-second ad that will begin airing in battleground states.
Kerry's campaign, calling the $900 billion figure "completely made up," prepared a response ad titled, "Misleading America" that accuses Bush of distorting the Democrat's record while touting Kerry's middle-class tax cut plans, said officials, on condition of anonymity.
A second Bush ad tells voters they face choices on the economy, health care and the war on terrorism. "We can go forward with confidence, resolve and hope. Or we can turn back to the dangerous illusions that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat," Bush says in the second ad, without mentioning Kerry by name.
The Bush ads, unveiled by the campaign Thursday, will begin airing in some 18 states Friday. In addition, Bush will begin running his first radio spot, and it will make the same high-taxes, soft-on-terorrism argument against Kerry.
The Democrats' response ad would air in the same states, a Kerry official said.
Meeting with congressional Democrats on Capitol Hill (search), Kerry dismissed the ads, saying they fail to focus on health care, jobs, education, the environment and a safe America. "They can't talk about those things because George Bush doesn't have a record to run on, he has a record to run away from, and that's what they're trying to do," Kerry said.
The ads, part of a multimillion-dollar media campaign launched by cash-rich Bush last week, are certain to spark debate over negative campaign tactics, as well as Kerry's record on taxes and terrorism.
The Democratic campaign condemned Bush's "attack ad" and negative politics just a day after Kerry called Republican critics "the most crooked ... lying group I've ever seen." That comment, captured without Kerry's knowledge by a live microphone, prompted Bush adviser Marc Racicot (search) to call on Kerry to apologize "for this negative attack."
During the Democratic primary, Kerry ran at least a dozen ads criticizing Bush or his policies.
The drumbeat of attacks from Kerry and other Democrats helped reduce Bush's poll ratings to their lowest levels of his presidency. Bush is now in a rush to recover, as well as to define Kerry for voters. The next several weeks gives the president a chance to go on the offensive while the nominee-in-waiting is low on money and enlisting the help of former rivals.
Bush's first round of ads were positive, but their references to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks drew criticism from Democrats and some victims' relatives who accused Bush of exploiting the tragedy. The White House argued that the terrorist strikes are a major part of Bush's presidency, thus fair game in the political season.
Republicans said they looked forward to wrangling with Kerry over the size of any tax increases he would support. Kerry has never explicitly called for a $900 billion tax hike, but Republicans are basing their case on incomplete arithmetic in his own policies.
Kerry's plan to reduce health care costs would cost nearly $900 billion over 10 years, according to a study by Emory University economic professor Kenneth Thorpe (search), who has been cited by Kerry's campaign and other Democrats as an authoritative source.
The presumptive Democratic nominee has vowed to roll back Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, saving about $250 billion over 10 years by most estimates. He would keep — and perhaps enhance — middle-class tax cuts pushed by Bush.
The Bush campaign argues that there is no way Kerry can implement his plan and hold the line on the federal deficit without hiking taxes by $900 billion. Kerry campaign officials have said they will flesh out his economic plans in the next several weeks.
Peter Orszag (search), a Brookings Institution economist who served as an economic adviser in the Clinton White House, said it's possible to get to $900 billion in Kerry tax increases by adding $400 billion to repeal some of the tax cuts and retain a phase-out of personal exemptions and itemized deductions for wealthy Americans, $150 billion in estate tax reforms and $350 billion in higher taxes on capital gains and dividends.
Looking at Kerry's economic and spending plans more broadly, economists are divided on whether his numbers add up, because details still are slim. Thorpe said Thursday he believes Kerry can come up with enough federal dollars through repealing tax cuts for the wealthy to pay for his proposals for health care, education and other initiatives, provided the new programs are phased in.
The National Taxpayers Union, on the other hand, calculates that Kerry's spending initiatives total $277 billion a year, far more than could be paid for by repealing some of the tax cuts.
Bush's toughest ad, titled "100 days," envisions Kerry's first three months in office. It alludes to Kerry's oft-shifting positions on the Iraq war — "He wanted to delay defending American until the United Nations approved" — and notes Kerry's recent opposition to the Patriot Act.
Bush's voice is heard at the beginning of the ad, saying he approved the message.