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The Morning Grind / DayAhead

He started it!

By John Mercurio
CNN Political Unit

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Stay with CNN-USA for our political team's updates and analysis on the battle of the campaign ads and other aspects of the race for the White House.
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Morning Grind
George W. Bush
John F. Kerry
Tom Vilsack

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Negative ads pour onto TV screens and radio airwaves in 18 battleground states this weekend. But the debate over who picked the fight, John Kerry or President Bush, spreads from coast to coast.

The bottom line: Kerry picked the fight, with an ad he first aired September 3, 2003. But you wouldn't know that from listening last night to the Kerry camp and its Democratic allies, who are fast proving how quickly they'll respond to anything Bush's campaign throws their way.

Sensing an opening after Kerry's "crooked ... lying" snafu threatened to overshadow his otherwise good week of Democratic unity meetings, the Bush campaign unveiled a new 30-second TV ad, called "100 Days," that claims Kerry would "raise taxes by at least $900 billion," "weaken the Patriot Act" and "delay defending America until the United Nations approved." (Full story)

"John Kerry," a female announcer says in the ad's tag line. "Wrong on taxes. Wrong on defense." The ad, along with a more positive spot, is running in the same 18 states and cable stations Bush's initial ads did last week.

Camp Kerry responds today with its own TV spot that hits Bush for airing "misleading" ads. "Once again, George Bush is misleading America," an announcer says, sources tell the Grind. "Doesn't America deserve more from its president than misleading negative ads?" They also unveiled a new Web page, called D-Bunker, designed to "beat back misleading Bush attacks."

Unwilling to let a whole news cycle pass without responding to Bush, however, Democrats stormed the e-waves yesterday, before the Bush ads had even aired, to declare they were "shocked!! shocked!" by Bush's mean, old ads.

"Bush going up with negative ads this early in the season only proves that desperate times call for desperate measures. With negative job growth, a negative trade balance and a budget firmly in the negative, it seems only fitting for the Bush team to employ a negative campaign strategy," said Jano Cabrera, formerly of Joe '04, who started his new job yesterday as a Democratic National Committee spokesman.

"This early in the season," Jano? C'mon.

What about September 3, 2003? Aside from being the Grind's birthday, that's when Kerry first ran a TV ad calling Bush's jobs record an "astonishing failure." Kerry promised in that ad to roll back Bush's tax cuts and to be a president, presumably unlike Bush, who's "on the side of America's middle class."

Or howzabout October 31? Aside from being Halloween, it's the day Kerry first aired a spot in Iowa saying Bush's administration "works for those at the top, not you," and has passed "the biggest tax cuts in history to the wealthy."

"George Bush and Dick Cheney let polluters and oil companies rewrite our environmental laws. They defend the loopholes that let corporations avoid taxes by moving jobs overseas," an announcer says in that Kerry spot, titled "Courage."

We could go on, really.

Apparently the Democrats' argument goes something like this: Sure, Kerry ran those ads. But that was waaaay back in the Democratic primary, so those ads were only intended to appeal to Democratic primary voters. If Republicans or independents happened to view the ads and take away a negative impression of Bush, well, we can't control that. Now, we're in the general-election campaign. It's a whole new ball game. The clock starts over.

Please. No clocks, no ball games. Kerry ran the first negative ads of the '04 presidential campaign. Period.

Oh, and while we're at it, one more thing: There's no difference between a "contrast" ad and a "negative" ad. Never has been, never will be. And any campaign aide who tries to convince reporters otherwise is wasting his or her breath.

Republicans inadvertently tipped their hand on this point yesterday. During a conference call, Bush pollster-strategist Matthew Dowd said they're also airing a 60-second radio ad that resembles the anti-Kerry spot. "But" Dowd added, "it actually has a positive element to it as well."

Can we all move on now?

Bush-Cheney is substituting the "100 Days" ad for two spots called "Tested" and "Lead," which are being pulled from circulation.

Republicans are also running another new ad, called "Forward," in which Bush avoids mentioning Kerry by name but still characterizes himself as the better "choice."

"Now we face a choice," Bush says in the spot. "We can go forward with confidence, resolve and hope. Or we can turn back to the dangerous illusion that terrorists are not plotting and outlaw regimes are no threat."

Bush campaign officials aren't backing down from controversy surrounding their use of September 11 images in their third TV ad, announcing yesterday that they'll continue to run that ad for the foreseeable future.

"We think it's important to remember what happened on 9/11 as we devise policies to address what happened," Dowd said. The ad "is a good ad, laying out the challenges this country's been through. We've had tremendously positive feedback. We're happy with the debate that the ad started, and we want to continue that. That's sort of how we see that."

Dowd made it clear that we'll be seeing a lot more "contrast" between Bush and his Democratic challenger. "Kerry has been in the Senate for 19 years and there are a lot of votes we're going to be talking about," he said.

Stay tuned.

VP tea leaves

Speaking of negative attacks, we hear that Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, will travel to Montana on Saturday to deliver the keynote address for the state party's Mansfield-Metcalf dinner. Vilsack's bottom line: Democrats can win in rural states this year because Bush hasn't delivered to family farms.

The Grind received some excerpts of Vilsack's speech last night. Here they are:

"President Bush went and whooped it up at a rodeo and livestock show this week. They think that they've got the votes of farmers and small town families and agricultural families all wrapped up. They think that Bush can give a healthy horse a hearty pat on the side, flash a steady grin toward the camera, and convey trust and likability."

"Well, President Bush is in for a surprise if he thinks that's all it takes. Everyone in this room knows that families in this country are hurting. Does anyone think that running a family farm has gotten one bit easier since Bush became president? Rural families are looking to the president to produce a serious, sustained lift to our economy -- not for a shot of him posing with prize pigs."

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