Monday, September 27, 2004

Strong Charges Set New Tone Before Debate

The New York Times
September 27, 2004

Strong Charges Set New Tone Before Debate

WASHINGTON, Sept. 26 - The presidential campaign is entering a pivotal two-week period at a boil, with Senator John Kerry and President Bush battling over the Iraq war and the threat of another domestic terrorist attack, making emotion-charged arguments to set the groundwork for their first debate, on Thursday.

The intensity of television advertisements broadcast this weekend - a blur of images of Osama bin Laden, Mohamed Atta and explosions on the streets of Iraq - signaled the campaigns' new phase and the importance that both sides attach to the debates, aides to the campaigns said.

Mr. Kerry, arriving in Wisconsin on Sunday for four days of debate preparation, declared that Mr. Bush had misled the nation about the severity of the situation in Iraq. "He owes the American people the truth and he owes the troops the truth," he said.

A senior Kerry adviser, Joe Lockhart, laid out what Democrats said would most likely be another major theme for Mr. Kerry leading up to the debate, as he accused Mr. Bush of "using the war on terror as a political tool and a political weapon" in seeking to silence dissent.

Mr. Bush's communications director, Nicolle Devenish, responded by accusing Mr. Kerry of playing politics with terror in his attacks on Mr. Bush's Iraq policy. And she offered her own sharply worded preview of the message that Mr. Bush will try to present at the debate on Thursday night in Coral Gables, Fla.

"Someone who blinks when things get hard is not the right person to win the war on terror," Ms. Devenish said, adding: "They are preaching retreat and defeat in the face of real challenges from an enemy bent on our destruction. I think that's bad for the troops, it's bad for our allies and it's bad for our country."

These tough exchanges came on the eve of what aides to both men described as a critical period in the campaign - two weeks in which the presidential candidates will debate three times and the vice-presidential candidates will debate once.

A series of polls since the Republican convention in New York have offered often sharply different portrayals of the race, although the consensus in both campaigns is that Mr. Bush enjoys a lead of about five points over Mr. Kerry. More significantly, Mr. Bush appears to be cementing his lead in states he won in 2000, freeing him up to move on to Democratic turf.

Aides to Mr. Kerry and Mr. Bush both said the debates had the potential of upending and perhaps even deciding the race. But both sides agreed that of the two candidates, Mr. Kerry had the most riding on its outcome.

"The first debate is really in my opinion about Kerry," said James Carville, a Democratic consultant and informal adviser to the Kerry campaign. "People know what they think of Bush: they don't want to re-elect him."

Matthew Dowd, a senior strategist for Mr. Bush, said: "They have some pressure on them. If the election were held today, we would win. The only way for Kerry to readjust it back to even is with these debates."

With statements by the candidates, their aides, and with television advertisements, both sides have begun to set the table for a debate that is going to be devoted to terrorism and foreign policy.

Mr. Kerry has escalated his attacks on Mr. Bush's Iraq policy, while Republicans have responded with a pattern of attacks seeking to portray Mr. Kerry as undermining troops, demoralizing allies and being weak in the face of terrorist attacks, a line of attack that has enraged Democrats.

On Capitol Hill, where many Democrats feel vulnerable to similar attacks, lawmakers said it was essential for the party to fight back.

"There used to be a time when aiding and abetting the enemy was a treasonous offense," Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, said in an interview. "Now it's become a routine political charge."

Mr. Durbin urged the Kerry campaign and his fellow Democrats in a closed party caucus meeting last week to confront the Republicans over that line of attack.

Mr. Bush, at an appearance in the Rose Garden last week with Prime Minister Ayad Allawi of Iraq, suggested that terrorists could be emboldened by what he has repeatedly described as Mr. Kerry's changing positions on Iraq. Before that, Representative J. Dennis Hastert, Republican of Illinois and speaker of the House, said he believed that Al Qaeda would be more successful under a Kerry presidency.

"It's a fairly common occurrence in wartime that people who dissent are accused of being unpatriotic," said Alan Brinkley, a historian who is the provost of Columbia University. "But to have it come from high levels of this kind is somewhat unusual."

And over the weekend in an advertisement financed by the Progress for America Voter Fund, a Republican advocacy group, which includes images of the ruins of the World Trade Center, as well as Mr. bin Laden, Mr. Hussein and Mr. Atta, the announcer asks, "Would you trust Kerry up against these fanatic killers?"

It was Mr. Bush's aides who originally pressed to have the first debate fought out on what should be the president's strongest ground, terrorism and foreign affairs. Typically, the first debate draws the most viewers and has the most influence on voters.

But Mr. Kerry's advisers, pointing to continued evidence of turmoil in Iraq and the threat of a terrorist attack at home, have increasingly warmed to the subject, saying voters seemed eager for a debate on the issue. Mr. Kerry has over the past two weeks confronted Mr. Bush head-on over Iraq, in a shift of strategy that his aides said Sunday was showing signs of success.

In Wisconsin on Sunday, Mr. Kerry seized on reports of an interview the president gave to Bill O'Reilly on Fox News in which he said he had no regrets about donning a flight suit to give his "Mission Accomplished" speech on Iraq in May 2003 and that he would do it all over again if given the chance, according to a partial transcript of the interview released to the Reuters news service. (Fox News and the White House declined to provide the excerpts to The New York Times).

"It is unbelievable that just this morning we learned that the president has said he would do it all over again and dress up in a flight suit, and land on an aircraft carrier, and say 'mission accomplished' again," Mr. Kerry said. "Well, my friends, when the president landed on that aircraft carrier, 150 of our young sons and daughters had given their lives. Since then, tragically, since he said mission accomplished, tragically over 900 have now died.''

Mr. Bush never actually said "mission accomplished," but stood in front of a banner that contained those words.

Mr. Bush held two practice debates over the weekend at his ranch in Texas, with Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire playing the role of Mr. Kerry, said Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director. Mr. Bartlett continued what has been a concerted effort to play down expectations about how Mr. Bush would do in a debate with Mr. Kerry.

"Will President Bush step on his own line and maybe not pronounce a word right?" Mr. Bartlett said. "I bet he will. But I think after the 90 minutes there won't be ambiguity on his positions, and that's a difference."

As Mr. Bush prepared in Texas, Mr. Kerry studied up at a resort in Spring Green, Wis., where aides were focused not only on Mr. Kerry's debate performance, but in managing the perceptions afterward. They were keenly aware of how perceptions of Al Gore steadily worsened in the aftermath of the first debate as Bush advisers highlighted what they said were examples of exaggeration by Mr. Gore.

"What everybody learned out of 2000 was that the Bush people went in with a theory of that debate, and no matter what happened they stuck to that theory and they won the spin war," said Stephanie Cutter, Mr. Kerry's press secretary.

Ms. Cutter said Mr. Kerry had his own theory on the coming debate. She would not disclose it.

Adam Nagourney reported from Washington for this article, and Robin Toner from Madison, Wis.