The manager of President Bush's reelection campaign portrayed Democratic candidates Saturday as weak on terrorism and defense, saying the 2004 race would offer a choice between "victory in Iraq or insecurity in America."
The remarks by campaign chief Ken Mehlman underscored the prominent role that the Bush team expects national security to play in the president's reelection effort. But his comments also led Democrats to renew accusations that Bush was exploiting the Iraq war and the fight against terrorism for political gain.
In a speech to Republican governors at a conference in Palm Beach County, Mehlman spoke at length about Bush's response to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He said the administration had dismantled terrorist cells in Detroit, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Tampa, Fla., Buffalo, N.Y., and northern Virginia; filed criminal charges against 286 people; and detained more than 3,000 suspects in 90 countries.
"As long as George W. Bush is president, the front lines of the war on terror will be Baghdad and Kandahar, not Boston and Kansas City," Mehlman said.
He went on to accuse unnamed Democrats of trying to "weaken the very laws that bring terrorists to justice."
"When liberty's survival is threatened by terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere, our leading critics offer weakness and vacillation," he said. "Instead of support, they would cut and run." While touching on tax cuts and other issues, Mehlman made war and terrorism the centerpiece of his campaign overview for 2004.
"Eleven months from now, we will choose between victory in Iraq or insecurity in America," he said. "Eleven months from now, we will choose between more money in the pockets of America's families or more money in the coffers of the federal government in Washington. And 11 months from now, we will choose between a leader of principle or a politician of protest, of pandering and of pessimism."
Mehlman's remarks came a day before the Republican Party was to start running a television ad that also trumpets Bush's record on terrorism. Democratic candidates for president have denounced the ad, and aides were quick to criticize Mehlman's comments for much the same reasons.
"Clearly, President Bush has made a decision to politicize the war on terror," said Erik Smith, a spokesman for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri. "Not only is it beneath this president to do so, but it's particularly repugnant while we have troops in the field of battle." Bush, he added, is using troops "as political pawns."
Tricia Enright, a spokeswoman for Democratic candidate Howard Dean, said the president's advisors "obviously recognize that the American people are concerned about Bush's handling of foreign policy" -- most of all the war in Iraq.
"We're not safer here at home, and the American people are certainly feeling that way," she said.
In January 2002, Karl Rove, Bush's top political advisor at the White House, touched off a similar clash with Democrats when he spoke openly about the political influence of the war in Afghanistan.
In a speech to Republicans in Austin, Texas, Rove urged GOP congressional candidates to stress the war in their campaigns. Democrats expressed outrage, but Republicans followed his advice -- and went on to pick up seats in the November election.