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Bush launches early attack on Kerry

President Bush went on the offensive against Sen. John Kerry on Monday, in an unusual attack, coming so early in the general election campaign.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

President Bush attacked Democratic opponent John F. Kerry on Monday as dangerously indecisive and accused him of a "deeply irresponsible" effort to weaken the nation's intelligence services before Sept. 11, 2001.

"My opponent clearly has strong beliefs — they just don't last very long," Bush told a crowd of wealthy fellow Texans at a fundraising lunch.

Bush reached back nine years to a bill introduced by the Massachusetts senator to slow the rate of spending on intelligence gathering to argue that the presumptive Democratic nominee would weaken the nation's intelligence system if elected president. 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.

Firing early and often
Bush's campaign had planned to husband much of its ammunition for the fall. But with the president trailing in the latest polls, he and campaign officials are deploying what they consider some of their most potent information about Kerry's record as they scramble to keep the campaign focus on Bush's handling of terrorism. The polls show that voters strongly approve of Bush's response to terrorist attacks.

A day after Kerry drew attention to limitations he said Bush has tried to put on investigations into lapses in the administration's handling of intelligence, the president used the luncheon speech in Dallas to point out that Kerry had introduced a measure in 1995 to cut the nation's overall intelligence budget by $1.5 billion — $300 million a year for five years.

The measure was one of 374 bills and resolutions he introduced during 19 years in the Senate, and it never came to a vote. But Bush hopes to make it symbolic of Kerry's entire record, which has been generally liberal but has hawkish threads throughout.

"His bill was so deeply irresponsible that he didn't have a single co-sponsor in the United States Senate," Bush said. "Once again, Senator Kerry is trying to have it both ways. He's for good intelligence, yet he was willing to gut the intelligence services. And that is no way to lead a nation in a time of war."

Seizing on perceived opportunity
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. Kerry emerged relatively unscathed from the Democratic primary, while former Vermont governor Howard Dean absorbed the majority of criticism from Democratic opponents.

Kerry's bill was introduced at a time when the Senate was struggling to balance the budget, the government was headed toward a shutdown and lawmakers were under pressure to cut spending.

Kerry's campaign said in a written statement that he was trying to thwart "a proposed billion dollar bloat in the intelligence budget, because it was essentially a slush fund for defense contractors."

Spending on intelligence totaled about $29 billion in 1995. The Republican-controlled Congress that year agreed to cut the budget for the National Reconnaissance Office, which built and operated spy satellites, by $900 million for the coming year because it had discovered the NRO had salted away more than $1 billion as advance payments for future satellites. Congress acted because it discovered the NRO had used about $300 million from that account to build a new office building in Virginia.

Bush document attacks Kerry
Bush pointed out that Kerry introduced the intelligence bill two years after the first World Trade Center terrorist bombing, which killed six and wounded more than 1,000. The Bush-Cheney campaign made a more explicit charge in a document charging Kerry with a "record of cutting intelligence in the face of terrorist threats."

Kerry's campaign did not dispute the facts Bush used, but said in the statement that the senator has supported $200 billion in intelligence funding over the past seven years and $4 trillion in defense spending over his career.

"It was widely known that the intelligence budget was overridden with pet projects and pork and was no longer appropriate to the intelligence tasks at hand," the statement said. "The nation was shifting from the Cold War to a transnational threat involving terror, drug traffickers and international crime and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction."

Chad Clanton, a Kerry campaign spokesman, tried to turn the issue against Bush and his most generous donors. "Unlike George Bush, John Kerry does not and will not support every special spending project supported by Halliburton and other defense contractors," he said.

Reaching back nine years
Ever since Kerry's victory in the Iowa caucuses revived his candidacy, one of the main points Bush's supporters have hammered on during television appearances is that Kerry has advocated cuts to the defense and intelligence budgets. The Republican National Committee called attention to the 1995 bill in an e-mail to reporters on Feb. 12.

Former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey (Neb.), who served with Kerry on the intelligence committee, said in a telephone interview that the bill Bush singled out in Dallas was in no way representative of Kerry's record. "He was very much a hawk on spending more on intelligence, always asking if we were spending enough," Kerrey said.

After giving his campaign speech in Dallas, Bush attended the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and then spoke at a fundraising reception in Houston, bringing his total take for the day to more than $3 million.

Wearing a rugged brown jacket, Bush entered one of the rings, patted several cows on the head, and said, "I thought there was a lot of bull in Washington, D.C."

Staff writers Glenn Kessler and Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.