WASHINGTON – It's becoming the battle of the ads.
John Kerry (search) is "wrong on taxes" and "wrong on defense." That's the message being sent in the first batch of critical television ads launched by President Bush's re-election campaign.
The 30-second TV and radio ads began airing Friday and will hit 18 so-called swing states, further evidence that the Bush-Cheney campaign (search) is adopting an early and aggressive strategy to keep the White House.
The ads come after Kerry has pounded Bush's policies in ads of his own for the past six months. Kerry, with far less money and advertising reach, countered Bush's ads with one of his own Friday, accusing the president of "misleading America."
The ad, which will air for at least a week beginning Saturday in fewer states and fewer media markets than Bush's spots, rebuts the president's claim that Kerry has proposed a $900 billion tax increase. Kerry's ad asks: "Doesn't America deserve more from its president than misleading negative ads?"
Until Bush's ads were unveiled Thursday, Kerry's campaign had no immediate plans to go on the air or dip into the $16 million in Democratic Party money available to him.
The attacks on the air are unusual eight months before the Nov. 2 election, and indicate just how ugly the campaign could get.
Meanwhile, the head of the Democratic Party told Fox News that he has no problem with Kerry's recent controversial remarks or his refusal to apologize for them.
"I think it's terrific -- he has every right to go out and say what he believes," said Democratic National Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "He knows they're [Republicans] going to come aggressively after him."
"We have never seen an incumbent president of the United States go out and attack an opponent this early. We knew this was coming," McAuliffe continued.
The comments in question include Kerry calling his Republican critics "the most crooked ... lying group I've ever seen." That comment, captured by a live microphone without Kerry's knowledge, prompted Bush adviser Marc Racicot to call on Kerry to apologize "for this negative attack."
Kerry said Thursday that he had "no intention whatsoever of apologizing."
When asked if it was becoming of a presidential hopeful to call his rivals "crooked liars," McAuliffe said, "He's telling the truth."
McAuliffe continued that Bush promised to create jobs but the country lost them; the nation has record deficits; prescription drug benefits are costing $120 billion more than the administration said and pre-Iraq war intelligence said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
The toughest of the two new ads names Kerry and claims he would raise taxes by $900 billion and "delay defending America." The other makes a veiled reference to the Democratic senator from Massachusetts when Bush says: "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."
Kerry's campaign called the $900 billion figure "completely made up." The only increase would happen for those people making more than $200,000, Kerry staffers said.
Even before the ads became public, Kerry slammed them for what he described as their negativity.
"There is a Republican attack squad that specializes in trying to destroy people and be negative," Kerry said Thursday. "I think the president needs to talk about the real priorities of our country."
Kerry criticized Bush's ads for not focusing on health care, the economy, education, the environment or national security.
"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," Kerry said.
The Bush ads are the second installment in a multimillion-dollar ad campaign that attempts to shift voters' attention from the president's weaknesses to his strengths -- from talk of joblessness in an ailing economy to a debate over Democratic tax hikes; and on terrorism, from violence-torn Iraq to reminders of his leadership on Sept. 11, 2001.
Bush's campaign wants to open the general election in control of the debate and with Kerry on the defensive after Democrats spent months exploiting Bush's vulnerabilities, both on the campaign trail and on the television airwaves during the early primaries. Over the past six months, Kerry alone has spent millions to run at least a dozen ads critical of Bush or his policies.
The Democrats' attacks likely contributed to a drop in Bush's approval ratings, which have fallen to the lowest levels of his presidency. The incumbent Republican now is in a rush to recover and to define Kerry for voters.
Kerry has raised $7 million on the Internet since he essentially locked up the Democratic presidential nomination on March 2, but he would have to spend most of it just to match the $6 million Bush has spent on broadcast ads alone in their first week on the air. That doesn't include the more than $4.5 million Bush is spending on national cable networks through May.
Arab-Americans Critical of Bush Ads
Bush's first round of ads were positive, but their references to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks sparked criticism from Democrats and some victims' relatives who accused him of exploiting the tragedy.
One of his new ads now has drawn the ire of the Arab American Institute (search). James Zogby, the institute's president, suggested that Bush not run the commercial because it shows a picture of an olive-skinned man with bushy eyebrows above the phrase "Weaken Fight Against Terrorists."
"This is the very thing that the president warned against after 9/11. He was so wise to tell the country not to fall prey to the negative stereotypes that exploit fear," Zogby said. "Now the president seems to be doing what he warned against."
The ad, the most critical of the two, alludes to Kerry's desire to get United Nations approval before the U.S. invasion of Iraq and notes his opposition to the Patriot Act (search). It also makes the claim of a $900 billion tax hike, which Kerry has never explicitly called for.
Kerry 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 says there is no way Kerry can implement his health care plan and not increase the deficit without hiking taxes by $900 billion. Kerry campaign officials said they will flesh out his economic plans soon.
Fox News' Carl Cameron, Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.