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Bush ad plays on Kerry windsurfing

Senator's camp calls commercial 'shameful,' responds with its own

LATROBE, Pa. -- The image was simply too much for senior Bush media strategists to resist: Senator John F. Kerry windsurfing off Nantucket, his boat twisting back and forth in the gusty air, the very maneuver Republicans have accused the Democratic candidate of making on important policy issues for months.

''I thought it so perfectly conveyed the message," said senior adviser Mark McKinnon, who quickly grabbed the footage of Kerry, shot by news crews during the Republican National Convention, to turn it into a campaign advertisement.

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The advertisement was conceived before Kerry, under the direction of a team of political veterans, launched a new effort to shed the waffler label by laying out a comprehensive proposal Monday for handling the future of Iraq.

Starting with a highly publicized address in New York, followed by a news conference on Tuesday and further remarks yesterday, Kerry launched what even some Republicans quietly said was the most effective Democratic offensive in many weeks -- directly taking on the increasing violence in Iraq and accusing Bush of ignoring what Kerry says is a worsening crisis.

Anxious not to let Kerry shift the equilibrium of the race, the Bush campaign yesterday coordinated an aggressive response to cement Kerry's image as inconsistent -- including tough remarks from Vice President Dick Cheney and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, along with the windsurfing advertisement, which was unveiled yesterday.

Cheney repeated his controversial assertion that Kerry would make the nation less safe if he were elected president. ''John Kerry gives every indication . . . of someone who lacks the resolve, the determination, and the conviction to prevail in this conflict," Cheney said.

The new Bush advertisement begins: ''In which direction would John Kerry lead?" Its substance is less notable than its artwork, which features a video image of Kerry windsurfing for the duration of the spot.

''Kerry voted for the Iraq war, opposed it, supported it, and now opposes it again," the narrator says, against the picture of Kerry on the water. ''He bragged about voting for the $87 billion to support our troops before he voted against it."

It concludes: ''John Kerry. Whichever way the wind blows."

McKinnon said the idea for the advertisement came to him virtually the moment he saw the footage on the news, toward the start of the Republican convention in New York. Now, nearly a month later, a central question for both sides is: Will Republicans succeed in continuing to portray Kerry as a flip-flopper, and is that enough to block any potential turnabout in the polls? Or could the Democratic challenger, by focusing on serious problems in Iraq, succeed in making Bush and Iraq the focus for the remaining 40 days of the campaign?

The Kerry campaign, in an unusually swift response to the Bush advertisement, attacked the president as being frivolous and cavalier with the windsurfing advertisement at a time of tragedy.

And Kerry officials launched a new advertisement of their own, titled ''Juvenile," in which a narrator says: ''One thousand US casualties. Two Americans beheaded just this week. The Pentagon admits terrorists are pouring into Iraq."

It continues: ''In the face of the Iraq quagmire, George Bush's answer is to run a juvenile and tasteless attack ad."

Mike McCurry, a senior spokesman for Kerry, demanded that Bush pull the ''shameful" ad off the airwaves, accusing the president of taking a ''lighthearted approach to the war in Iraq."

''Mr. President, this is a shameful advertisement that shows a disturbing disregard for those fighting and sacrificing in Iraq, and you should repudiate it immediately," McCurry said in a statement.

Senior Bush adviser Karen Hughes, traveling with reporters on Air Force One, quickly dismissed the demand and defended the decision to use water sports as a campaign theme during a time of war. ''His choice of leisure activities is a lighthearted way of making a very serious point," Hughes said of Kerry. ''He may have a case of selective amnesia when it comes to some of the things he's said."

In fact, several Bush campaign aides expressed deep satisfaction with the advertisement. The television spot -- and the comments from surrogates such as Giuliani that accompanied it -- marked an intensive effort to reinforce accusations that Kerry is inconsistent, the chief attack Bush has made on the Democrat over the past six months.

''Senator Kerry's position shifts with the wind," Giuliani said in a statement released by the Bush campaign as the former mayor stumped for the Republican ticket in Florida yesterday. ''It would be a big mistake to retreat on the war on terror."

Kerry has never suggested he would retreat on the war on terror; he has accused Bush of mishandling the war. And Democrats have lambasted Republicans for casting doubt on their interest in protecting the nation.

The Bush campaign showed no signs of backing down. Indeed, although Bush officials rarely narrate their own campaign strategies, they acknowledged yesterday that they had coordinated comments from Cheney and Giuliani to hammer home the attack. ''This is part of a tougher line on 'flip flop' that goes deeper and gets into what a flip-flopper would do in the White House -- change his mind when the going gets tough," Bush campaign spokesman Reed Dickens said.

Out on the campaign trail, Bush again depicted Kerry as a flip-flopper. But Bush also downplayed the degree of danger in Iraq, saying there are but a ''handful of people who are willing to kill to the stop the process" of moving toward democracy.

That comment sparked a response from Kerry, who once more accused Bush of ignoring reality. ''George Bush is living in a make-believe world, unwilling to tell the truth or understand the situation in Iraq," Kerry said. ''Even today, he blundered again, saying there are only a handful of terrorists in Iraq."

Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at akornblut@globe.com.

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