2004 CAMPAIGN: A 'SHOCKING' STUMBLE

The controversy over President George W. Bush's new TV ads featuring fake firefighters and fleeting images of the 9/11 attacks threw campaign officials on the defensive--and raised questions about the Bush team's ability to effectively spend its massive $150 million war chest, some GOP insiders say. The president's ad team, led by Austin, Texas-based media maven Mark McKinnon, had carefully road-tested the spots in focus groups, and Bush himself signed off. But the rollout of the ads, which argue that Bush has made the country "safer, stronger," was quickly marred by charges from some 9/11 families that the Bush team was seeking to exploit the attacks for political gain. One scene shows footage of a flag-draped coffin of a terror victim; another has an American flag waving in front of World Trade Center wreckage. Publicly, Bush aides were dismissive and insisted the flap had only strengthened their plan to make 9/11 "a central topic of the campaign." "There's no way you can talk about George W. Bush without talking about September 11," said one campaign adviser. "It's like talking about Franklin Roosevelt without mentioning World War II." But privately, some GOP strategists were disturbed by the backlash and suggested the ad team had misjudged how the imagery would play. "It's quite shocking to a number of Republicans to watch them stumble out of the block like this," said one veteran GOP consultant, who added that the big question in GOP circles is "Do they [the Bush-Cheney campaign] know how to spend" their huge budget?

Another less-publicized aspect of the ad flap: the use of paid actors--including two playing firefighters with fire hats and uniforms in what looks like a fire station. "Where the hell did they get those guys?" cracked Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which has endorsed John Kerry, when he first saw the ads. (A union spokesman said the shots prompted jokes that the fire hats looked like the plastic hats "from a birthday party.") "There's many reasons not to use real firemen," retorted one Bush media adviser. "Mainly, its cheaper and quicker."

The flap is likely to put renewed attention on the White House's continuing wrangle with the 9/11 Commission. Kristin Breitweiser, a leader of a 9/11 family group, charged it was "hypocritical" of the Bush team to use September 11 when the president has refused to turn over sensitive intelligence documents to the full commission and, more recently, insisted that Bush himself will meet with the panel's chair and co-chair for only one hour. Even some GOP panel members are miffed at the White House stand--and blame it on administration lawyers. In what appears to be an attempt to defuse some of the controversy, NEWSWEEK has learned, White House officials have privately signaled to the commission that Bush will not rigidly stick to the one-hour time limit. When time is up, Bush won't walk out if there are still more questions, an aide said.