A television ad that uses stark photos of terrorists to raise concerns about Sen. John Kerry's leadership prompted Democrats on Monday to respond with an ad slamming President Bush's failure to capture the most-wanted terrorist leader, Osama bin Laden.
In the escalating airwaves war over terrorism, the independent pro-Bush group, Progress for America Voter Fund, struck first with an ad featuring scenes of terrorists and their assaults.
In a hushed voice, a narrator charges that Kerry has been inconsistent in his voting on Iraq and has favored cuts in intelligence and defense spending in the past. The TV ad asks if the Democrat should be trusted with the nation's defense.
Ellen Moran, who directs the independent expenditure arm of the Democratic National Committee, told reporters, "Our team was outraged over the weekend when we saw the Progress for America ad."
Her department, which by law cannot coordinate with the Democratic presidential campaign of John Kerry, put together a counterpunch. Its TV spot uses remarks from the president from a few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when Bush recalled Old West posters in calling for bin Laden to be taken "dead or alive."
Moving to six months after the attacks, it shows Bush laughing as he says he does not know where bin Laden is and "I truly am not that concerned about him."
The ad is scheduled to begin airing today in Iowa and Wisconsin, the same states where Progress for America is running its anti-Kerry ad.
The rapid-fire exchange comes as the president and his rival prepare for a face-off on foreign policy on Thursday in the first of three presidential debates.
In a further sign of Democratic determination not to leave charges unanswered, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a West Point graduate, told reporters that the Progress for America ad was a "below the belt" assault on Kerry's patriotism.
Reed said the ad used "the same approach" that Republicans took to defeat Vietnam war veteran Max Cleland, the Democratic senator from Georgia who lost his seat in 2002.
The ad run by the independent Progress for America Voter Fund has gained widespread notice amid signs that the pro-Republican group has emerged as a major player in the campaign.
Earlier this year, outside groups that favor Kerry, such as MoveOn.org Voter Fund, got a head start by spending tens of millions of dollars on ads lambasting President Bush. Republicans are catching up fast by financing their own independent groups, known as 527s for the section of the tax code that governs them.
Progress for America, which has no official ties to the Bush-Cheney campaign and fewer inhibitions in the tone of its communications, has collected $35-million this year in just a few months. It is spending $1-million to run the new terrorism ad on cable TV and in Iowa and Wisconsin.
Brian McCabe, president of Progress for America, denied that the ad is an attack on Kerry's patriotism.
"We think it raises an important question on who will keep you safer on the war on terror," he said. "The Democrats' quick response clearly indicates that they are nervous, that Sen. Kerry's track record on these issues is soft."
He said that his group planned to spend at least $20-million on TV ads and that he has already contracted for $12-million in ad time in nine swing states for the final two weeks of the campaign.