Democrat John Kerry (search), with far less money and advertising reach, countered President Bush's negative ad 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?"

Bush is entering his second week flooding most media markets in 18 competitive states in a multimillion-dollar advertising onslaught. He unveiled the first negative television ads of the general election campaign Thursday, calling Kerry "wrong on taxes" and "wrong on defense," characterizations that prompted the Democrat to respond.

The attacks on the air are unusual eight months from the Nov. 2 election and indicate just how ugly the campaign could get.

The toughest of Bush's two new ads says Kerry wants to raise taxes by at least $900 billion and weaken the Patriot Act (search), while the other makes a veiled reference to him 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 has never explicitly called for a $900 billion tax hike, but the Bush campaign says there is no way Kerry can implement his health care plan and not increase the deficit without boosting taxes by that amount. Kerry campaign officials say they will flesh out his economic plans soon.

He has not been on the air anywhere since locking up the Democratic nomination March 2 and instead has focused on rebuilding his depleted campaign coffers after an expensive Democratic primary contest. Until Bush's ads were unveiled Thursday, the Democrat's campaign had no imminent plans to go on the air or dip into the $16 million in Democratic Party money available to him.

Kerry aides say the ad will run in every state where Bush is running commercials except Washington and Delaware. However, they acknowledge that they will be on the air in fewer markets and at lower levels than Bush.

Kerry has raised $7 million on the Internet over the past 10 days, but he would have to spend most of it to match the roughly $6 million Bush will spend over the next week to run ads on broadcast channels. That doesn't include the more than $4.5 million Bush is spending on national cable networks through May, or the $6 million he spent last week on broadcast channels.

Bush's new 30-second spots, and a companion radio ad, are the second installment in an ad campaign that attempts to shift voters' attention from his political 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 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Bush's campaign wants to open the general election campaign 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 the 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.

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. 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."