By KIRK SEMPLE
The New York Times/ Published: March 4, 2004
The Bush re-election campaign and the White House stepped up today their defense of three new advertisements that use images of the smoldering remains of the World Trade Center, arguing that the device is appropriate in an election campaign that will be waged, in part, on the candidates’ abilities to fight the war on terror.
“Because of that day, we are at war against terror,” Karen Hughes, a campaign adviser for President Bush , contended on the ABC program “Good Morning America.” “The race for president is now on, and it’s important that we look at how the two candidates would approach that war against terror.”
The three advertisements, two of which will be aired starting today, feature images of the charred shell of the World Trade Center still standing, firefighters emerging from the wreckage with a flag-draped stretcher presumably carrying remains.
The spots are part of what may become the most expensive advertising campaign in presidential history, and are intended to erase months of Democratic attacks by portraying President Bush as a plain-spoken leader who steadied the nation after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The start of the advertising blitz signals a new level of intensity for Mr. Bush’s general election campaign against Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party. Mr. Bush attended a fund-raising luncheon in Santa Clara, Calif., today, and his campaign manager and chief campaign strategist were dispatched on missions to promote the candidacy, including an appearance on Hugh Hewitt’s nationally syndicated radio show and to host an online chat session with campaign volunteers, according to the campaign.
According to the Bloomberg news service, Mr. Bush raised $700,000 for his campaign during the Santa Clara stop today, and an additional $800,000 last night at a fund-raiser in Los Angeles.
Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, answered reporters’ questions about the campaign’s use of the Sept. 11 imagery by saying that the terrorist attacks continued to be an important object lesson in the need for strong national security.
“It is vital to our future that we learn what September 11th taught us,” he said. “The president’s steady leadership is vital to how we wage the war on terrorism.”
He added, “There’s a clear choice for Americans in how we confront the threats of terrorism.”
The campaign of Senator John Kerry, the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party, as well as firefighters and some families of the victims of the World Trade Center attacks, have criticized the use of the images as cynical exploitation of a national tragedy.
The International Association of Fire Fighters Union, which was meeting today in Bal Harbour, Fla., approved a resolution asking the Bush campaign to pull the advertisements, the union’s spokesman, Jeff Zack, told The Associated Press. The resolution also urges Bush to “apologize to the families of firefighters killed on 9/11 for demeaning the memory of their loved ones in an attempt to curry support for his re-election.”
Harold Schaitberger, president of the union, which has endorsed Mr. Kerry, said today that the advertisements were “disgraceful” because the Bush administration had not, in the opinion of the union, done enough to ensure that fire departments around the country have been adequately staffed and equipped.
“Bush is calling on the biggest disaster in our country’s history, and indeed in the history of the fire service, to win sympathy for his campaign,” Mr. Schaitberger said in a statement that echoed his initial reaction on Wednesday.
The Kerry campaign has called the use of World Trade Center imagery by the Bush re-election campaign “astonishing” and the commercials “revisionist history.”
“It makes me sick,” Colleen Kelly, who leads a group of victims families called Peaceful Tomorrows, told The Associated Press. Her brother died in the attacks. “Would you ever go to someone’s grave site and use that as an instrument of politics?” she asked. “That truly is what Ground Zero represents to me.”
Ms. Hughes — who appeared on several morning shows today, including CBS and CNN in addition to ABC — argued that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were not so long ago as to be irrelevant to this year’s presidential campaign.
“The ad is a reminder of our shared experience,” she said on ABC. “September 11th is not some distant event in the past. It’s a defining event for our future. And it’s important that we learn the lessons of that day.”
She argued that the attacks changed national public policy, international security and the economy. “Because of that day, we are still engaged in a war against terror, a war that will be going on under the next president,” she added. “And it’s important that the next president recognize and understand that.”
Other supporters of the president also emerged today to voice support for the advertisements, including Bernard B. Kerik, who was New York’s police commissioner under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani at the time of the terrorist attacks.
Speaking on CNN, Mr. Kerik said President Bush was entitled to use the images because “he has led us through the war on terrorism” and, the former police chief added, “it’s important to remind people who has done what for this country.”
This week alone, the Bush re-election campaign is spending well over $5 million to broadcast the commercials on stations in 17 states and on several national cable networks, Democrats who are monitoring advertising purchases said.
In a speech today at the headquarters of a company in Bakersfield, Calif., that rents pipeline and irrigation systems, Mr. Bush emphasized his economic policies and assured his audience that “this economy is strengthening.”
California, with 55 electoral votes at stake, is the single biggest prize in the November presidential election. The Democrats have won the state in the past three elections; Al Gore beat Mr. Bush there in 2000 with about 53 percent of the vote.