Bush pledges to play nice, in ads

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As the presidential election enters the fall showdown, the candidates are finally turning their advertising toward the issues, but with divergent strategies: George Bush is accentuating the positive, John Kerry the negative.

Following a week of Republican sniping at Mr. Kerry during the Republican convention, the Bush camp is now laying out a positive "Agenda for America" encompassing health care, jobs and tort reform. Sen. Kerry's focus on the economy, jobs and health care, meanwhile, comes via comparisons with what the ads call the failures of President Bush.

"People want to know what [Mr. Bush] plans for the future," said Mark McKinnon, head of the candidate's Maverick Media ad team. "It is more critical to voters to provide a clear agenda, a rationale for a second term. ... We have known all along that we will have to earn a second term."

He added, "I am frankly surprised that the Kerry campaign has failed to this point to communicate a clearer or compelling agenda. It's getting late in the game."

"Almost all the advertising we have done have been positive ads where we have talked about issues," said Kerry campaign strategist Tad Devine. "Almost all of the Bush ads are negative attacks attacking John Kerry. I believe our advertising will address the issues. We will continue to have our candidate be the principal spokesperson in delivering the message and we will continue to look to the future." The Kerry campaign will spend $50 million in the weeks remaining to the election.

One Bush spot breaking Sept. 7 features the president saying, " During the next four years we'll spread ownership and opportunity. We need to make our economy more job-friendly to keep American jobs here. ... We gotta make sure our workers have the skills necessary to fill the jobs of the 21st Century."

Another, focused on the economy, states, "President Bush and our leaders in Congress have a plan: Strengthen our economy. Life-long learning. Invest in education. New skills for better jobs. A fairer, simpler tax code. ... Legal reform. Permanent tax relief." A third spot concerns health care.

Attacking Bush

In spots created by Shrum Devine Donilon and by Squier Knapp Dunn, both Washington, running in several states Mr. Bush is set to visit, the Kerry camp suggests a legacy of broken promises. "Four years ago, George Bush came to Milwaukee promising to keep our economy growing, expand opportunity. Four years later Wisconsin has lost 84,000 jobs. ... Now Bush is back. ... Around here we remember broken promises. ... America can do better."

An ad that will have a broader airing in 20 states and on national cable quotes Mr. Kerry saying, "It's time to stop rewarding companies for shipping jobs overseas. To get health-care costs under control. The fundamental choice is for a president who will fight for the middle class and a president who sides with special interests."

Mr. McKinnon said the Bush campaign so far sees no need to respond. He and Mr. Bush's chief strategist Matthew Dowd claimed the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Convention communicated little more than that Mr. Kerry is not George Bush and that Mr. Kerry is a war hero, which he said people already knew.

soft supporters

Mr. Bush's strategy is to seek out what Mr. McKinnon termed a "significant number" of still-persuadable voters who are either soft Bush supporters or soft Kerry supporters. "We have seen a significant shift in the last couple of weeks, so it's still fluid. While the band of movement will be much narrower in this election, because the undecided vote is narrower, it's much more critical that we move those voters," he said.

But while advertising for both candidates focuses on issues, public relations is another story. In public statements, both sides are still offering strong attacks on the opposition. The gibes against Mr. Kerry were numerous from the podium during the Republican National Convention last week. And the Kerry campaign, newly aided by former Clinton Press Secretary Joe Lockhart, last week ratcheted up attacks on Mr. Bush. Mr. Kerry called Mr. Bush's speech a "cut-and-paste" job of old proposals and accused him of "trying to stake his political future on the Sept. 11 tragedy."

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