WASHINGTON — It's "Animal Planet" in the presidential advertising wars.
In heavily symbolic television spots, President Bush's campaign uses prowling wolves to suggest that the country under Sen. John Kerry would be vulnerable to terrorists. The Democratic Party claims the Republican incumbent is a head-in-the-sand ostrich while his opponent is as strong as an eagle.
"Weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm," says an ominous voice in the president's ad as a wolf pack stirs from its resting spot. Countering, the Democratic commercial juxtaposes an ostrich whose head is buried with a soaring eagle and asks, "Given the choice, in these challenging times, shouldn't we be the eagle again?"
Polls show Bush and Kerry in a tight race, and both campaigns are focusing on national security to try to gain an advantage.
The commander in chief argues for staying the course in wartime, suggesting that change would put the country at risk and terrorists would take advantage of a Democratic president. Kerry and his party claim the country needs a new direction because the president is out of touch with reality.
Both the Bush campaign and the Democratic National Committee say they have had their respective ads ready for months. However, both waited to air the spots in the closing days of the campaign when voters pay closer attention and the stakes are the highest.
On Friday, the Bush campaign rolled out its ad, prompting the DNC to accelerate plans to air its commercial.
The president's ad is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's "Bear" ad that was credited with helping frame his successful 1984 re-election over Walter Mondale. The ad used a menacing grizzly bear to represent the Soviet Union, the rival superpower of the Cold War.
In Bush's ad, wolves are a metaphor for terrorists, the U.S. enemy of 2004. It shows a dense forest from above and sunlight-speckled trees from inside. Shadows, seemingly made by wolves, dart through the brush. At the end, a wolf pack moves forward.
"In an increasingly dangerous world, even after the first terrorist attack on America, John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America's intelligence budget by $6 billion," the ad says. "Cuts so deep they would have weakened America's defenses. And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm."
Hitting back, Kerry running mate John Edwards, in Boynton Beach, Fla., accused Bush of "continuing to try to scare America in his speeches and ads in a despicable and contemptible way."
And in a Reno, Nev., rally, Kerry made it clear he wasn't shrinking from a fight with Bush over terrorism and war.
"He's trying as hard as he can to make you believe that there's just one issue, that's all that matters — terror, war on terror," he said. "You want to talk about the war on terror, Mr. President? Let's talk about it. Let's talk about what happened when you let Osama bin Laden escape in Afghanistan."
Echoing comments from Vice President Dick Cheney, the Bush campaign commercial suggests that if Kerry were elected, the country would face a higher risk of another terrorist attack.
"It's certainly playing to fear," said Darrell West, a Brown University political scientist who studies campaign advertising. "It builds logically on other things they've been saying for months."
Compared with Bush's ad, the DNC commercial is uplifting — even comical.
To the strains of piano music, an eagle spreads its wings in a bright sky and perches on a branch at sunset while an ostrich stands with its head buried in sand.
"The eagle soars high above the earth. The ostrich buries its head in the sand. The eagle can see everything for miles around. The ostrich? Can't see at all. The eagle knows when it's time to change course. The ostrich stands in one place," the ad says. "Given the choice, in these challenging times, shouldn't we be the eagle again?"
The Democrats argue that Bush has failed to face the reality of a postwar morass in Iraq, with more than 1,000 American dead, kidnappings and beheadings, and violence threatening to delay elections in January. In addition, Democrats cite the recent report by Charles Duelfer, the U.S. weapons hunter in Iraq, who said Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction programs had deteriorated by the time of the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
Bush's main rationale for war was his charge that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Officials for both sides said both ads would air in local media markets in states considered battlegrounds as well as on national cable networks. Bush's ad was to start Friday. The DNC ad was to start running early next week.
Bush's campaign and the Republican National Committee are spending roughly $15 million on TV ads this week, and GOP officials say that sum is likely to be higher next week, the last before Nov. 2.
The DNC's independent operation has allotted $20 million for ads for this week and next combined. Party officials say the new commercial will run at heavy levels in rotation with other spots.