WASHINGTON -- President Bush has stepped up his political air war against Bill Clinton, launching two major television assault ads in the past two days that are aimed at scaring would-be Clinton voters back into the Bush column.
But the Democratic challenger has fired back with equal force, claiming in a new response ad released yesterday that "nothing could be more frightening than four more years."
The video duel appears to mark the beginning of a new phase of the presidential campaign that may continue until the candidates meet each other in live verbal combat for their first debate Oct. 11.
Mr. Bush, who polls show has been unable to regain the support of many of his 1988 backers by stressing his record and his economic proposals, is now directing most of his efforts toward exploiting voter uneasiness about the still relatively unfamiliar Democratic challenger.
His goal is not necessarily to change the poll numbers right away, says Bush adviser Charles Black, but to begin "building a case" for rejecting Mr. Clinton that might not fully register with voters until the last week of the campaign -- now just a month away.
The toughest of the new Bush ads -- and the one that is clearly most worrisome to Mr. Clinton -- underscores the charge President Bush made repeatedly on his train trip last weekend. He says that Mr. Clinton secretly intends to raise taxes on the middle class because there is no other way to pay for all new programs he's promised.
Figures used in his advertisement are based entirely on assumptions disputed by Mr. Clinton, and the ad presents specific tax increase amounts for certain individuals as though they were fact.
Mr. Clinton and his allies have angrily denounced the ad as a deliberate distortion of his proposals. And they have put three separate ads on the air in response, including one Thursday that reminds voters of Mr. Bush's broken 1988 promise of "Read my lips . . . No new taxes."
The latest Clinton response ad released yesterday features a headline from the Washington Post calling the Bush ad "misleading." It also refers to a Wall Street Journal observation that Mr. Clinton has proposed to cut taxes for the sort of people featured in the Bush ad.
The Clinton ad says Mr. Bush is "trying to scare you about Bill Clinton" because he has "the worst economic record of any president in 50 years."
But the Bush tax advertisement plays upon what many economists say is a valid complaint that the numbers in Mr. Clinton's economic plan don't add up. It also highlights what the Bush campaign hopes will be seen as a significant difference between the president and the challenger: Mr. Clinton says he is willing to raise taxes, although only on the wealthy, while Mr. Bush insists tax increases are not necessary.
The Bush ad was inspired by a similar advertising pitch used by the British Conservative Party earlier this year in the successful comeback victory that won John Major a second term as prime minister. The British ad asked: "How much extra would Labor tax you?" It answered the question with examples of taxes that would apply to specific workers, just as the Bush ad does.
Bush officials professed no dismay that the challenger had responded to their broadsides so quickly.
"Whatever time, money and resources they spent on that was taken away from something else they really wanted to be doing," said Alixe Glen, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bush.
The newest of the Bush ads tries to undermine the Democrat's credibility further by suggesting he changed his position on issues such as the Persian Gulf war and term limits for Congress. It also includes a reference to apparent inconsistencies in Mr. Clinton's explanations of how he happened to escape the military draft during the Vietnam War.
To get its message across, the ad features a split screen. On each side is a speaker whose face is obscured by a gray dot.
A narrator explains the differing positions taken by the two on each issue. Then the dots are removed to reveal that both speakers are Mr. Clinton. At the end, there is a tape of Mr. Clinton's voice taken out of context from an unrelated television C-span appearance saying, "There is a simple explanation for why this happened."
That last bit was intended to add a humorous note, Mr. Black said.