Bush Getting His Licks In

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 9, 2004; 10:20 AM

What month is it, anyway?

As CBS News's Byron Pitts said, yesterday's presidential campaign back and forths "already made March feel like late October."

Mike Allen of The Washington Post writes: "President Bush attacked his Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), on Monday as dangerously indecisive and accused him of a 'deeply irresponsible' effort to weaken the nation's intelligence services before Sept. 11, 2001. . . .

"The intensity of the attack by Bush was unusual, coming so early in the general election campaign. Presidents seeking reelection generally have sought to remain above the political fray for as long as possible while their surrogates deliver the sharpest attacks on opponents. . . . "

But here's the rub:

"The president's advisers believe that Bush has an unusual opportunity to define his opponent in voters' minds as weak on national security before Kerry's campaign can gain traction with its own messages," Allen writes.

In the New York Times, Richard W. Stevenson and Jodi Wilgoren call it "a day of rock-'em, sock-'em politics unusual for such an early stage of a presidential campaign."

The president uncorked a new soundbite yesterday: "My opponent clearly has strong beliefs, they just don't last very long." Here's the text of his remarks at his fundraising lunch and his fundraising dinner.

It's Too Early for This

Pop quiz: At what point in the campaign cycle did Ronald Reagan first mention his opponent, Walter Mondale, by name?

The answer: Oct. 12, just weeks before the election.

In his White House Notebook column for The Washington Post, Dana Milbank remarks on just how astonishing it is that Bush has attacked Kerry by name a half-dozen times in the past week.

"It was by far the earliest time an incumbent president has invoked the name of his opponent, even considering the rapid conclusion of the Democratic primary race," writes Milbank, who researched when previous office-holders first mentioned their opponents by name. (Bush 41, August; Bill Clinton, July.)

"Democrats are delighted that they have forced Bush to abandon the Oval Office for the hustings," Milbank writes.

Wrestling over Sept. 11

Bush spent part of the afternoon petting cows and hanging out with cowboys at the Houston rodeo (more on that below).

Over in Florida, Kerry spoke to a rally in West Palm Beach.

"If the president of the United States can find time to go to a rodeo, he can find the time to do more than one hour in front of a commission that is investigating what happened to America's intelligence," Kerry said.

So has Bush in fact cooperated with the 10-member bipartisan commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as much as one might expect?

Dan Eggen of The Washington Post takes a look at the series of clashes between the White House and the commission "over a range of access issues, including aviation records and presidential intelligence briefings."

The biggest ongoing skirmish is "over ground rules for private interviews with Bush and Vice President Cheney, who want to limit their meetings to one hour with the panel's chairman and vice chairman. Former president Bill Clinton and former vice president Al Gore have agreed to unlimited meetings with the full commission."

Out in the blogosphere, there's still a lot of talk about the contrast between Bush's campaign ads, featuring imagery of 9/11, and his refusal to meet at greater length with the commission.

Some folks are pointing to statements by the Family Steering Committee for the 9/11 commission, which say in part: "President Bush has said publicly that he has an obligation to those who died and he welcomes a discussion regarding 9/11. 'How this administration handled that day as well as the war on terror is worthy of discussion,' Bush told reporters. We wholeheartedly agree."

The Family Steering Committee, a group of victims' relatives, has been highly critical of Bush in the past.

Poll Watch

Grim polling news for the White House this morning.

Richard Morin and Dana Milbank write that Bush "has seen public support fall to the lowest level of his presidency for his performance on the economy and the situation in Iraq, a new Washington Post-ABC News poll has found.

"A majority of Americans -- 57 percent -- say they want their next president to steer the country away from the course set by Bush, according to the survey. Bush's standing hit new lows in crucial areas such as the economy (39 percent support him), Iraq (46 percent) and the budget deficit (30 percent).

"Bush's overall support, 50 percent, was unchanged from February and equal to the lowest of his presidency; only the war on terrorism continues to garner him the support of more than six in 10 Americans.

There's also a chart showing change in Bush approval ratings over time, the individual poll questions and answers, and trend data.

Meanwhile, Richard Benedetto writes in USA Today that its latest poll with CNN and Gallup finds "the president's overall job approval is 49%, which is equal to his all-time low in late January."

Bush in Texas

In between fundraisers, Bush stopped by the Houston Livestock Show and rodeo.

He patted some of gigantic Brahman cows on the head and joked: "I thought there was a lot of bull in Washington, D.C." (As Maura Reynolds so delicately put it in the Los Angeles Times, he said this "despite the gender of the cattle in question.")

Bush agreed to an interview with Peter Rousell, a former aide to Bush 41 and a former Reagan press aide who now does commentary for KTRK-TV in Houston. Rousell concluded that Bush is taking the high road in the campaign.

Rousell asked Bush, who was standing in the cattle ring wearing a leather rodeo jacket, about his campaign ads and 9/11.

"Well, my view is I'm going to talk about 9/11," Bush replied. "It was a major moment in our nation's history. It was a time when the enemy declared war on us. And as I tell people, war is what they got with George W. Bush as president, and we're going to win the war."

The president also stopped to talk to some cowboys.

MK Bower of the Houston Chronicle spoke to some of them afterwards.

"'He said he went fishing this morning and caught a lot of crappie,' Will Lowe, reigning bareback bronc riding world champion, said with a laugh. 'He said they were pretty much jumping into his hands.'

"'It was normal conversation you would have with one of your buddies, and that's the way he is. He wasn't putting on some kind of act for us.' . . .

"'He's just a regular good ol' boy,' said Amarillo native Trevor Brazile, 2003 all-around champion whose third go-round in team roping was Sunday. 'It doesn't seem like it takes any effort for him to talk rodeo or ranching or anything agricultural based.'"

In his pool report, Richard W. Stevenson of the New York Times also described a little banter between Bush and the press.

"At one point, as he patted one of the cows on the head, the president turned to one of our wire service colleagues (a male) and remarked, "Reminds me of you." He did not elaborate. A moment later, another cow jerked its head up as the president reached out to give it a pat, perhaps suggesting it had had enough of being a prop."

Do Foreign Leaders Want Bush Out?

Patricia Wilson of Reuters reports that Kerry said at a fundraiser yesterday that he had received words of encouragement from leaders abroad who were eager to see him defeat Bush on Nov. 2.

Wilson quoted Kerry as saying: "I've met foreign leaders who can't go out and say this publicly, but boy they look at you and say, 'You've got to win this, you've got to beat this guy, we need a new policy,' things like that."

But as Julian Borger writes in the British newspaper, the Guardian: "Mr Kerry's claims risked playing into the hands of the Bush camp, which has privately sought to portray Mr Kerry as more at home with foreigners than with ordinary Americans."

Here's Dana Bash on CNN late that night: "The Bush campaign is stepping up its rapid response operation. Within minutes of Senator Kerry saying that foreign leaders have told him they want President Bush out, the Bush campaign gave us a reaction. Terry Holt, the spokesman, saying, 'Kerry's foreign friends may prefer him as U.S. president, but the election is in the hands of the American people.'

"Now, Bush advisers are well aware that Senator Kerry is trying to paint Mr. Bush as a unilateralist, somebody who has made some of the U.S. allies quite angry, particularly after the war in Iraq. But they are saying, and at least hoping privately, that statements like this might backfire."

(And the Republican National Committee helpfully suggested that perhaps Kerry was referring to North Korean leaders and a French cousin.)

My colleague Jefferson Morley, in his World Opinion Roundup on washingtonpost.com, finds that Kerry is indeed preferred among much of the international chattering class.

Black Sheep Watch

Shelby Hodge, the Houston Chronicle society columnist, describes Saturday's wedding of Maria Andrews and Neil Bush, one of the president's brothers.

But neither the president nor another brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, were in attendance. The president was at his Texas ranch with Mexican President Vicente Fox and the governor was "said to have pressing business in his home state," Hodge reports.

So did family values take a back seat to political expediency?

As Peter Carlson explained in the Style section of The Washington Post in December, "Neil Bush is the latest manifestation of a long tradition in American life -- the president's embarrassing relative. . . .

"But Neil Bush has surpassed them all. Bush has done something that no other American has ever accomplished: He has become the embarrassing relative of not one but two presidents.

"In the late '80s and early '90s, Bush embarrassed his father, George H.W. Bush, with his shady dealings as a board member of the infamous Silverado Savings and Loan, whose collapse cost taxpayers $1 billion.

"Now Bush has embarrassed his brother George W. Bush with a made-for-the-tabloids divorce that featured paternity rumors, a defamation suit and, believe it or not, allegations of voodoo."

Plame Watch

According to crusading investigative reporter Murray S. Waas, reporting on the American Prospect Web site, White House political guru Karl Rove has told investigators that he did indeed spread stories about once-covert CIA operative Valerie Plame all over town -- but only after Robert Novak's column came out.

A federal grand jury is looking into who outed Plame to Novak and other journalists.

Waas is out there alone with this story: "President Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, told the FBI in an interview last October that he circulated and discussed damaging information regarding CIA operative Valerie Plame with others in the White House, outside political consultants, and journalists, according to a government official and an attorney familiar with the ongoing special counsel's investigation of the matter.

"But Rove also adamantly insisted to the FBI that he was not the administration official who leaked the information that Plame was a covert CIA operative to conservative columnist Robert Novak last July. Rather, Rove insisted, he had only circulated information about Plame after it had appeared in Novak's column. He also told the FBI, the same sources said, that circulating the information was a legitimate means to counter what he claimed was politically motivated criticism of the Bush administration by Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson."

Asked and Answered

From yesterday's press gaggle with deputy press secretary Trent Duffy.

"Q -- the arrangement on cost-splitting today? Is this being paid for in greater proportion by the campaign, given that there's no message, no policy event today?

"MR. DUFFY: This will follow the normal practice, which is the campaign events are funded by the campaign, official events are funded by official sources. The visit to the livestock show is part of the President's official capacity."

Halliburton Watch

NBC's Lisa Myers reports that a food subcontractor that runs 10 percent of the dining facilities in Iraq claims Halliburton owes it $87 million, including payment for Bush's much-photographed Thanksgiving dinner with the troops.

Meanwhile, Jackie Spinner and Mary Pat Flaherty report in The Washington Post that Halliburton "reported yesterday that it made an $85 million profit on $3.6 billion in revenue from Iraq work last year."

Late Night Humor

Via the Associated Press:

"The Tonight Show with Jay Leno":

"President Bush has unveiled his first campaign commercial focusing on his accomplishments. That's why it's only a 60 second spot."

"President Bush has just one question for the American voters: Is the rich person you're working for better off now than they were 4 years ago?"

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