msnbc.com
updated 3/12/2004 3:33:42 PM ET 2004-03-12T20:33:42

Three major national polls this week showed President Bush and Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry stuck in a statistical tie. Maybe that deadlock explains why here in early March both the Bush and Kerry campaigns are already throwing nearly every brickbat they have at each other.

A major turning point came Friday when the Bush campaign went on the air with its first TV and radio ads directly criticizing Kerry by name, accusing him of planning to raise taxes and of being willing to defer to other nations before taking military action.

Kerry advisers said the campaign will broadcast a rebuttal ad touting the senator’s middle-class tax-cut proposal and accusing Bush of distorting Kerry’s record.

Video: Curry's White House derby This week's ad wars also featured one by a Democratic group called the Media Fund, headed by former Clinton White house aide Harold Ickes.

Airing in 17 states, the Media Fund ad tells viewers, “George Bush's priorities are eroding the American Dream. It's time to take our country back from corporate greed.”

The ad didn’t break any new ground in terms of imagery or polemic — “corporate greed” was a staple of Democratic rhetoric in the 2002 election.

The early ad wave raised the possibility of TV viewers being totally sated with political attacks early in the season, say by April 1.

One of Kerry’s attacks on Bush this week wasn’t aired in an ad but in comments picked up by a microphone, when the Massachusetts senator called Bush and his aides “the most crooked, you know, lying group I’ve ever seen.”

The initial news stories played it as a classic “gaffe” — words unintentionally picked up by an open mike.

But could it have been a clever way to get exposure and save the $10 million it would have cost for a national TV ad campaign?

A couple of veterans weigh in
Equally as intriguing this week was the role played by two Washington veterans, both of them ostensible non-politicians who nonetheless will play a role in the battle for the White House.

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On Monday, even though he’s an old Army officer, Colin Powell seemed to hear the Navy order, “All hands on deck!”

The secretary of state went on Fox News to do some campaigning for Bush. Powell called Kerry’s criticism of the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein’s regime “politicization.”

“Sen. Kerry was arriving at those judgments using the same intelligence base, the same intelligence information that President Clinton and Vice President Gore had previously, and that President Bush was receiving from the Central Intelligence Agency,” Powell said. “Sen. Kerry accepted it and spoke as if he believed it. And now a year later, to say the president was doing the wrong thing or he misled the nation, just is inaccurate.”

Powell added gratuitously, “we shouldn't be having a political debate over issues like that. “

But of course the Iraq war was a political decision with election-year effects both in 2002 and this year.

Two days later it was Chief Justice William Rehnquist reminding voters of how high the stakes are on Nov. 2 by remarking in an interview on NBC’s Today program, “When you get to be 79 years old, you know, your life expectancy isn't what it once was and you've got to think about the possibility of retirement.”

Rehnquist of course insisted in the same interview that he wasn’t making news, simply noting the actuarial facts.

An election-year Supreme Court vacancy is a dizzying prospect. The chance to replace the conservative Rehnquist with a chief justice who would suit Kerry is more than enough to get both Democratic and Republican pulses pounding.

Kerry said last year that if he were president he would only appoint justices who would commit themselves to preserving the court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision.

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