By Douglas Kiker of the CBS News Political Unit.
In unveiling his campaign stump speech Monday night, President Bush makes it official that the campaign season – which, at countless campaign fund-raisers over the last six months, he and Dick Cheney argued, ironically, would come in due course – has indeed arrived.
Not that we needed the heads-up. With the president's poll numbers sagging for the second month in a row under the weight of criticism from John Kerry, John Edwards, Terry McAuliffe, et al., a decision has been made to start the general election campaign earlier than planned. As one Bush campaign official put it, the "vitriolic" Democratic primary made waiting no longer an option.
The Bush-Cheney campaign says the speech marks a "new period of engagement" by the president in light of a barrage of attacks by the Democratic presidential candidates over the last several months – or the last two years, if you're really counting.
While the campaign and the Republican National Committee have not been shy about attacking Kerry in the guise of defending the president, until now Mr. Bush himself has remained somewhat above the fray. While the president won't mention Kerry or Edwards by name in tonight's speech to the Republican Governors Association, he will highlight the difference between his administration's approach on the economy and the war on terror, and what the Democrats have said they'll do if elected.
It's not just on the podium that Bush-Cheney '04 is jumping into the ring. The campaign has filled its coffers like no other in history – $150 million raised as of the end of January with $105 million of that sitting in the bank – and plans to start spending its millions on television ads slated to begin airing on March 4.
These spots, unlike the Web-only video attacks on Kerry that the campaign sent to its 6 million e-mail subscribers, will be positive in nature and will feature Mr. Bush, including footage shot at the White House in early February. Bush-Cheney has started buying ad time on national cable outlets and Spanish-language stations for an open-ended campaign that will be the envy of cash-strapped Democratic media consultants.
Though the first spots will focus on the president's record, the campaign promises that "starker contrasts" will be made in the future between Mr. Bush and the eventual Democratic nominee.
There also will be virtual nonstop road trips by campaign surrogates – like Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, for example – to spread the campaign message ("Steady Leadership in Times of Change") whenever and wherever possible. These surrogates, freed in part by not being on the ticket, will respond aggressively to attacks by the Democratic standard bearer, whom the Bush-Cheney team anticipates will be Kerry.
"This campaign will talk about record between the two – not personal attacks," a campaign official said.
That argument, frankly, fails to hold water in light of the harshness of the campaign to date, which, if an accurate forecasting device, forebodes an old-fashioned political bloodbath as the general election proceeds.
To put things in perspective, there's not even a Democratic nominee yet and we've already seen, just to name a few of the meatier ones, accusations that the president shirked his National Guard duty in the 1970s; doctored photos of Kerry and political firebrand Jane Fonda floating around the 'Net; apparent false rumors about extramarital affairs, also floating around the 'Net; allegations that Kerry perpetuated the Cold War by not voting for President Reagan's requests for massive military spending increases 20 years ago; comparisons between Kerry and Ted Kennedy (this may not sound like trash talk to everyone, but it certainly is in some circles).
And that is just scratching the surface.
Both the Democrats and Republicans – it truly has been an equal opportunity slugfest – already have shown a willingness to not just take the gloves off but to strap on brass knuckles. At this rate, by November we'll all be longing for the Willie Horton salad days.
By Douglas Kiker