WASHINGTON – President Bush claims John Kerry (search) "doesn't even know where he stands" on the war, while the Democrat accuses Bush of having "no plan what to do" in Iraq — dueling television ads setting the stage for the candidates' Thursday night debate over foreign policy.
"How can John Kerry protect us when he doesn't even know where he stands?" a new Bush ad asks. Kerry's campaign hits back with a spot that claims Bush has no plan for Iraq and inquires: "How can you solve a problem when you can't see it?"
The candidates have vastly different arguments in trying to sway an electorate that polls show has grown increasingly concerned as the situation in Iraq has worsened and the White House race has focused on the issue. Voters in up to 16 states will see commercials on the issue this week.
The president's new ad seeks to undermine Kerry's credibility by portraying him as a flip-flopper who shouldn't be trusted to serve as commander in chief.
The ad shows several quick sound bites of Kerry commenting on the war. In one, he says, "The winning of the war was brilliant." The next: "It's the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time." The quotes use just a few words from longer statements.
Meanwhile, Kerry defends himself in his own ad, saying he can bring "a new direction" to the U.S. approach to Iraq. It's an attempt to persuade voters that he deserves to replace a sitting president during wartime.
Kerry also tries to paint Bush as out of touch with the reality of the turmoil overseas. "Over 1,000 U.S. soldiers dead, kidnappings, even beheadings of Americans," his new ad says.
"Kerry is saying that Bush can't see the truth," said Martin Kaplan, a scholar of politics at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. That could be an effective strategy as long as the Democrat sticks to it, Kaplan said.
The Democratic National Committee is pressing on the Iraq issue, too, with an ad in The New York Times on Monday featuring comments from five senators, including three Republicans, that the United States is not winning the war.
On Tuesday, the DNC will start airing a commercial in Iowa and Wisconsin that shows a picture of al-Qaida leader Usama bin Laden and Bush saying on March 13, 2002, "I don't know where he is. I truly am not that concerned about him." The ad juxtaposes that statement with newspaper headlines from this July and September that say bin Laden is planning for more U.S. attacks.
The ad responds to a spot running in those states by Progress for America Voter Fund, a group of Republican insiders. Its ad shows Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, bin Laden and other terrorists and asks: "Would you trust Kerry against these fanatic killers?"
The organization, an affiliate of a group created by Tony Feather, a longtime Republican consultant and former Bush aide, has reserved $12 million worth of airtime to run ads through Nov. 2. The group will add Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Pennsylvania to its roster for ads in mid-October.
Leading up to the debates, Kerry's campaign increased its advertising this week in most of the 14 states where it is on the air. The Democrat and his party are spending a combined $16 million to run ads this week compared with roughly $10 million for Bush and the Republican National Committee over the next two weeks. However, as in the past, the president's campaign probably will add money depending on the results of day-to-day polling.
On Friday, Bush and the GOP pulled ads out of Arizona, where polls show the president with a sizable lead, after Kerry tabled plans for advertising there. Republicans also have scaled back their ads in one state that Al Gore won in 2000 — Washington, where polls show Kerry with a comfortable lead.
Meanwhile, the DNC stopped running commercials in Missouri this week, another state where Kerry has delayed advertising and where Bush leads. The shift shows that Democrats are all but conceding the state. Bush remains on the air there at low levels.