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Bush ads trumpet leadership

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The first television ads released by the Bush-Cheney reelection team telegraph the core theme that the president will use in his campaign against John F. Kerry -- namely, that President Bush is a leader with clear, principled stands, while the likely Democratic nominee is not.

The three spots, which the GOP previewed yesterday, begin airing today. They are the opening salvo in the president's reelection campaign, funded from a war chest of more than $100 million, which Republicans have built up for the 2004 race.

One ad shows Bush sitting with his wife, Laura, talking about the importance of job creation. Another spot reminds voters that Bush took office as the economy was headed into recession. The third portrays him as a leader who has been tested by -- and has risen above -- unprecedented economic and national security challenges.

In each case, the ads draw on the power of the incumbency, either by framing their message against the distinctive arched windows in the White House residence or by showing the president striding in slow motion through the Colonnade outside the Oval Office. In the last two cases, the ads feature the caption, "Steady Leadership in Times of Change," a theme the president and first lady echo in their dialogue during the first spot.

In one spot, Bush identifies himself as "President Bush," while in the others, he uses the less-lofty appellation, "George W. Bush."

Following an Internet-only ad that the campaign released last month titled "Unprincipled," the new ads take direct aim at Kerry, even if they don't mention him by name. Members of the Bush campaign have labeled the Massachusetts Democrat, whose election victories Tuesday all but assured him his party's presidential nomination, a "serial flip-flopper" for offering seemingly contradictory views about the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, tax cuts, the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the No Child Left Behind education-overhaul bill.

"We're living in a time that's unlike anything we've ever seen before, so the economy is different, the economic challenges are different, we're living in a world of global insecurity and a war on terrorism, and so this whole idea of steady leadership is, I think, important to voters," Mark McKinnon, the president's ad maker, said yesterday as he unveiled the spots at the campaign's headquarters. "And when they think about steady leadership, they're going to look at two choices, and they're going to think, `Who is going to provide that steady leadership?' and we think it's President Bush."

The Kerry campaign immediately responded, releasing a statement accusing their rivals of waging a "revisionist-history ad campaign."

Stephanie Cutter, Kerry's communications director, said: "The only thing steady about this president is his steadily leading our country in the wrong direction. It's time for a change in America, and time to get things back on track."

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications specialist at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, said the ads reveal how Bush will try to answer Kerry's call for change.

"Ordinarily, the `change' that the challenger runs on is change from the incumbent," Jamieson said. "If the incumbent can argue that `change' -- in terms of `changing' times -- is part of the reason to keep the leadership you have now, he could present a rationale for voters keeping him in office."

Moreover, Jamieson said the introductory, 60-second spot shows the importance Laura Bush will have in the campaign, both because of her high positive ratings and because Republicans believe she will contrast favorably with Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who is known for blunt talk about everything from marital infidelity to her own Botox injections.

"Laura Bush is very effective on camera, and to date the open question is, `Is Teresa Heinz Kerry the same?' " Jamieson said. "I think Laura Bush brings out the best in George Bush . . . but she does it without appearing to want to become a copresident. Everyone believes they have a good marriage and love each other, and it really comes out when they appear together."

The ads, one of which will be in Spanish, are running on national cable television outlets and stations in spot markets across the country. Matthew Dowd, the president's pollster, said the ads would appear in at least 17 states in a buy estimated by outsiders at $4.5 million. Dowd challenged speculation that the primary audience is made up of conservatives who compose the core of the president's base, some of them angry with the burgeoning federal budget deficit and the administration's failure to hold a line on federal spending.

"In reality, these spots will likely be seen by more Democrats and independents than Republicans in the combination of the buy that we did," Dowd said.

The commercials are filled with patriotic imagery: the president in a blue suit with a red tie and white shirt, a flag on his lapel, and frames in which everything is black and white except for the colors of the American flag.

Asked whether the commercials exploited the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Ken Mehlman, the president's campaign manager, read aloud from a set of talking points. "For anyone who would say that we are playing politics, I would just say that it's unfortunate, but that the Democrats have been playing politics with Sept. 11 throughout their primary," said Mehlman.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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