After months of attacks on President Bush, the national Republican Party on Friday unveiled its first TV advertising of the 2004 presidential campaign, a spot that casts Bush as a leader in the fight against terrorism -- and a victim of partisan sniping.
The 30-second spot, set to begin airing Sunday in Iowa, features footage of the president's State of the Union speech in January.
As dirge-like music plays in the background, a grim-looking Bush describes the war on terror as "a contest of will, in which perseverance is power."
Flashed on the screen are phrases criticizing Bush's opponents, who go unnamed. "Some are now attacking the president for attacking terrorists," the ad says. "Some call for us to retreat" -- that last word in red letters -- "putting our national security in the hands of others."
Although the spot never mentions the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or the war in Iraq, it features a national-security theme likely to recur throughout Bush's reelection bid. It also comes as numerous surveys, including a Los Angeles Times Poll, show the president's popularity ebbing and doubts about the war in Iraq growing.
Democrats immediately denounced the ad.
Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina on Friday called the spot "morally reprehensible." Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts said Bush and Republicans were trying to "distract Americans from a failed foreign policy that has left our relationships with friends and allies in tatters." Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean launched an online fund-raising drive to counter the spot, with a goal of collecting $360,000 by midnight Tuesday -- or "$5,000 for every hour they are going to lie to the American people with their ad."
The advertisement is set to run for three days in Iowa, coinciding with a televised debate Monday among Democratic presidential contenders. A similar ad may air next month in New Hampshire, in conjunction with a candidates' debate in that state, said Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee in Washington.
The two states host the first two events of the 2004 presidential nominating season -- the Iowa caucuses Jan. 19 and the New Hampshire primary Jan. 27.
"There are some bright lines being drawn at this stage of the process," Iverson said. "We're going to begin highlighting those lines between the two parties."
The spot also highlights the role that nominally independent groups like the RNC, which are free to spend unlimited sums of money, are expected to play in the presidential race. Although the ad defends the president and attacks his opponents, it was not financed or produced by the Bush reelection committee.
A few hours after the RNC announced its ad campaign, the national Democratic Party said it would broadcast an anti-Bush spot all day Monday on MSNBC, which is airing the candidates' debate. And MoveOn.org, a left-leaning advocacy group, said it would launch a modest five-day run of ads starting today in Washington, D.C., and a few politically key states. In that 30-second spot, Bush is blamed for the loss of more than 2 million jobs since taking office.
The Democrats seeking the White House have pounded away at Bush for months in their TV advertising and campaign appearances. Kerry released two new spots in the last week, attacking the president's stands on health care and the environment.
The president has yet to air any campaign advertising; strategists have said they hope to hold off as long as possible to try to keep the president above the primary season tussling.
Some observers said Friday that the Republican Party ad could have the practical effect of turning President Bush into candidate Bush in the eyes of many voters.
"Once you start running commercials ... it politicizes everything," said Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa political science professor.
Iverson, the RNC spokeswoman, disagreed: "These ads are not being run by the president. They're being run the Republican National Committee."
Strategists for the president hope to delay their advertising until spring, when they expect the Democratic nominating fight to be settled. By contrast, President Clinton launched his reelection advertising in the summer of 1995, nearly a year and a half before his reelection in November 1996.