San Diego Union Tribune

May 4, 2004

Kerry ad blitz focuses on military record, public service

By GEORGE E. CONDON JR.
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON Sen. John Kerry launched a multi-state advertising blitz yesterday that focuses on his military record and years of public service in an effort to regain the political offensive after weeks of being criticized on the airwaves by the Bush campaign.

The $25 million, 19-state ad campaign comes amid increasing criticism from within his own party that the presumptive Democratic nominee has been slow to organize in key states while allowing Bush to define him with television ads.

"We're in good shape," Kerry said yesterday. "Americans aren't listening to all that junk."

The bulk of the Republican ads, which have been running in recent weeks, were highly negative of Kerry, questioning his national security credentials and branding him as an indecisive flip-flopper.

But Kerry is now firing back with positive ads that never mention Bush and seek to "introduce" the veteran Massachusetts senator to voters in key states analysts believe could swing the election. Voters in other states, such as Democratic-leaning California, will also see the ads, though less frequently, on national cable stations such as CNN.

"This is the biggest ad buy for a challenger in a presidential race," said Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill.

The two 60-second ads are biographical on Kerry, ranging from his birth in Colorado to when he "broke with his own party to support a balanced budget." Both ads dwell on Kerry's service as a Navy lieutenant in Vietnam, lingering over footage of him walking through the jungle with his rifle at the ready.

In both ads, two veterans are featured. One swiftboat crewmate, Del Sandusky, is shown stating, "The decisions he made saved our lives." Another, Jim Rassmann, says, "When he pulled me out of the river, he risked his life to save mine."

In one of those ads, Kerry is also praised in the ad by his daughter Vanessa and wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry.

The other ad discusses Kerry's accomplishments and shows him with Sen. John McCain, the maverick Arizona Republican who some Democrats openly wish would be Kerry's running mate. McCain has ruled out that possibility. The ad notes the two Vietnam veterans worked together "to find the truth" about POWs and MIAs in Vietnam.

The advertising blitz gets Kerry back into a battle he had been forced to cede to Bush because of the president's significant fund-raising advantage. In addition to the previously acknowledged 17 battleground states, the Kerry ads will run in Colorado and Louisiana states Bush won easily four years ago that some Democrats think they can take this time around.

While Kerry was fighting for the Democratic nomination against a large field earlier this year, Bush had been free to amass a record war chest.

The $60 million Bush ad buy was relentless in its depiction of Kerry as a foe of weapons systems and a man unsuited to lead a nation in wartime. The attacks shook many Democrats anxious at the lack of what they considered an adequate response from Kerry.

"There has been a lot of inside carping from Washington," said Democratic consultant Jim Duffy, who said some Democrats have been "whining and pointing fingers."

He said some of this was because Democrats are so determined to oust Bush from office that they wished Kerry was faster to get his team in place in states such as Ohio, where Bush has been well-organized for five months while Kerry still has not named his state director.

"You'd like to see him better organized there," Duffy said. But he said the larger concern is over Kerry's ability to counter Bush's negative advertising.

"The question is, after Bush has tried to define Kerry in a negative way, can Kerry come back and define himself in a positive way and undo the damage? That's the $64,000 question," he said.

Michael Donilon, a senior Kerry adviser, said he'd have been surprised if Democrats weren't uneasy after the Bush ad campaign.

"In the face of that onslaught it is not unusual that people would have some concerns that we could survive that," he said.

Tad Devine, another senior Kerry strategist, said Kerry needed time to shift gears from fighting for the nomination to taking on Bush in a national ad campaign.

"The reality of this race was that on March 1st, the Federal Election Commission report said the president had $110 million cash on hand and John Kerry had $2.3 million. That's the reality we had to deal with," he said.

Despite that, Kerry aides note that polls show the race a tossup at this point. Meanwhile, independent organizations have been running anti-Bush ads in key states.

The Kerry campaign has enjoyed two successful months of fund-raising, Devine said, and "now we're ready to move forward."

"The introduction has just begun," he said. "It will continue through the convention. People will get to know more about him."

Another problem cited by Democratic critics is what they see as the fuzziness of the Kerry message. Many crave something as simple as Bush's decision as a challenger in 2000 to build his campaign around the phrase "compassionate conservative."

The newly unveiled Kerry ads do not offer anything to match that slogan in simplicity or impact. But campaign manager Cahill said the ads do suggest themes to be struck by Kerry the rest of the year.

"Building a stronger America" is one phrase cited by Cahill. "A lifetime of service and strength" is another.

But Republicans believe it will take much more than one round of advertising to get Kerry on track.

"It doesn't seem that he has any clear and consistent agenda for what he wants to do as president," Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign's pollster and strategist, told reporters yesterday.

Dowd also said that the new ads talk little about his voting record in the Senate, something the Bush campaign has been hammering him for in the Republican advertising.