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Friday, March 19

Bush uses war anniversary speech to reassert commander role

By Chuck Raasch | GNS

WASHINGTON - President Bush stepped back into the role of commander in chief Friday, delivering a somber speech to foreign diplomats at the White House on the anniversary of the war in Iraq.

Bush argued that Iraq is on the road to freedom, and asserted that many nations have joined a life versus death struggle with global terrorist networks. But fresh acts of terrorism this month in Baghdad and elsewhere around the world emphasized the persistent challenges and uncertainties of this new age of terrorism.

In his White House speech, Bush said that last week's terrorist bombings in Madrid that killed more than 200 people were ``a reminder that the civilized world is at war, and in this new kind of war, civilians find themselves suddenly on the front lines.''

``No nation or region is exempt from the terrorists' campaign of violence,'' Bush said in a 22-minute speech. ``Each of these attacks on the innocent is a shock and a tragedy and a test of our will. Each attack is designed to demoralize our people and divide us from one another. And each attack must be answered not only with sorrow but with greater determination, deeper resolve and bolder action against the killers.''

Before Friday, Bush had spent several weeks venturing out of the Rose Garden, campaigning vigorously for his re-election, and engaging presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry as essentially an equal competitor for the job.

Their icy March exchanges, which have involved missteps by both Kerry and Bush, have sometimes given the impression of two competitors flailing away. But more than seven months before the election, the intensity comes with a reason.

``Right now there is a frenzied activity because there is a moment when the public is tuned in,'' said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas political scientist. ``The Democratic nominee has been identified, and the president has decided to respond. ... There is a huge fight to frame this election right now and while they have the attention of the public, they will fight to do that.''

Buchanan said Bush's decision to engage Kerry so early, and to hit the campaign trail frequently, came earlier than any president's he can remember. Republicans say Bush has almost been forced out of the White House because of the battering he was taking from Democrats who have unified around Kerry.

Democrats have intensified their criticism of Bush as Iraq's postwar struggles intensify. Democrats have begun using a larger critique of Bush's foreign policy, arguing that the president has squandered the good will and stature of the United States in an ill-advised war.

``Under Bush's watch, America's lights have literally gone out and our golden glow as a world leader has diminished,'' said Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist.

But Bush's speech Friday illustrated the power of his position, and the advantages of incumbency in a time of war. He portrayed the United States as facing one of its toughest challenges, but one he was confident that Americans could meet. And by implication, he tapped one of the Republicans' strongest arguments in 2004: That the middle of a war is no time to change leaders.

Bush is still seen, in polls, as better able to confront terrorism than Kerry. But events of recent weeks - terrorist bombings elsewhere, rising doubts among allies about the necessity of the Iraq invasion - undermine that strength. As a result, he and his campaign have decided to confront Kerry earlier and more directly than many expected.

It's very different from past Bush campaigns, in which he would lay out three or four clear policy goals, campaign as a fresh face, and leave the vitriol to allies and surrogates.

Bush has tried to remain above the fray, but his campaign and Kerry's have engaged in unprecedented, virtually daily charges and countercharges in speeches, advertisements and even in offhanded remarks.

``I think that partly the action is swift and fast because it speaks to people's concerns about the direction of the country,'' Buchanan said. ``People are unhappy with the direction of the country, and here are two guys arguing about the fundamental direction of what this country should be.''

But the candidates have sometimes struggled for debate worthy of the stakes; both men have erred in recent weeks.

Kerry, under attack for opposing additional aid for troops in Iraq, asserted that he had voted for the legislation and then against it. While technically defensible in the arcane universe of congressional amendments, it made him appear to be straddling and dissembling an important issue.

Kerry was also criticized for claiming that foreign leaders wanted him elected but not naming names, treading on the touchy ground of foreign influence in American elections. Further, he was overheard referring to Bush and his allies as ``crooks'' and ``liars'' in a comment to union supporters that was picked up by a microphone, raising questions about whether that conduct fit an aspirant for the presidency.

Bush's campaign ran into rough terrain when an advertisement designed to portray him as a resolute leader in a post-9/11 world contained a brief image of ground zero, the smoldering remnants of the World Trade Center in New York. Some families of 9/11 victims took exception, arguing that Bush had exploited tragedy for political gain.

Some Republicans also privately worried that by coming out to campaign so early, it diminished Bush's commander in chief status at a critical time in the war on terror. Democrats agreed.

``Whatever he would have brought into this as commander in chief was eroded by him treating John Kerry as a peer,'' said Cecile Richards, a longtime Democratic operative working to coordinate the activities of liberal groups.

But there are fresh signs that Bush's campaign - still sitting on more than $100 million - has started to find a stride.

Kris Warner, the Republican chairman in West Virginia, said Friday that he has no illusions about the difficulty of Bush winning re-election in a heavily Democratic state that Bush won by 6 percentage points in 2000.

But Warner said Bush's re-election campaign has had a full-time staff in the state since Jan. 1, a staff that was able to get several hundred people to a rally in 48 hours to counter a Kerry visit there later this week.

In addition, Bush's campaign launched ads about Kerry's vote against additional spending for Iraq that Warner said has been all over West Virginia talk radio this week.

``They are firing on all cylinders here in West Virginia,'' Warner said of Bush's campaign.