WASHINGTON — In President Bush's hint that Barack Obama wants to appease terrorists, Democrats heard troubling echoes of 2004, when Republicans portrayed John Kerry as irresolute and weak on national security.
Determined to end the similarities there, Obama and his allies counterattacked Friday with a multi-pronged response that was as fast and fierce as Kerry's response to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads was slow and uncertain.
And while the Democrats' first-day responses focused on Bush's speech this week in Israel, Friday's reactions mainly targeted John McCain, the GOP presidential candidate who seemed largely on the sidelines at first.
Obama, appearing unusually feisty and at times sarcastic, led the countercharge himself. Campaigning in South Dakota, he departed from planned remarks to rebuke Bush and McCain, and then called a news conference for a second dose.
"I was offended by what is a continuation of a strategy from this White House, now mimicked by Senator McCain, that replaces strategy and analysis and smart policy with bombast, exaggerations and fear-mongering," the Illinois senator said.
Bush's speech Thursday to the Israeli parliament, he said, wasn't about policy.
"It was about politics, about trying to scare the American people," Obama said. "And that's what will not work in this election because the American people can look back at the track record of George Bush, supported by John McCain," and conclude that the nation was misled about the Iraq war's justification, cost, length and benefit to America.
For four years, Democrats have regretted Kerry's halting response to the so-called Swiftboat ads, aired by Bush supporters at a crucial time in their 2004 presidential contest. The ads portrayed Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, as dishonest and "unfit for command."
Many politicians, including McCain, condemned the ads, and some stations quit airing them. But the $25 million campaign triggered conversations on talk radio, TV programs and front porches nationwide. Swiftboat became part of the political vernacular.
The ads not only undermined Kerry's personal image. They helped divert attention from the Iraq war, whose unpopularity was growing, and they shifted the debate on national security to a broader, more personalized framework that benefited Bush.
Democratic strategists say Bush is trying to give McCain a blueprint for the same tactic, and they are determined to respond more promptly and forcefully.
"Like Bush, McCain knows that he needs to make the election less about the past conduct of the war," said Stephanie Cutter, who was Kerry's 2004 campaign spokeswoman. "He'll go after Obama's trustworthiness, just like Bush went after Kerry's."
But Obama, she said, has shown that he "can give as good as he gets by making McCain responsible for Bush's failures and calling him out for his politically expedient flip-flopping."
The Democratic counterattack against McCain began in earnest early Friday, with a Washington Post op-ed piece touching on Hamas, a Palestinian militant group that the United States considers a terrorist organization. Former Clinton administration State Department official James Rubin wrote that McCain, responding to a TV interview question two years ago about whether U.S. diplomats should work with the Hamas government in Gaza, said:
"They're the government; sooner or later we are going to have to deal with them, one way or another," despite their unpalatable record. Rubin said McCain is "guilty of hypocrisy" and is "smearing" Obama.
The McCain campaign accused Rubin of airing an incomplete portion of the interview but focused its response Friday on Iran, not Hamas.
Campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds said Obama "has pledged to unconditionally meet with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad _ who pledges to wipe Israel off the map, denies the Holocaust, sponsors terrorists, arms America's enemies in Iraq and pursues nuclear weapons."
McCain used similar words himself in a speech to the National Rifle Association in Louisville, Ky.
"It is reckless to suggest that unconditional meetings will advance our interests" with Iran, he said.
Obama has said he would pursue talks with Iran without insisting on "preconditions" that would likely prompt Iranian leaders to spurn the request.
Bush started the brouhaha, which dominated Friday's campaign news, with Thursday's speech to Israel's Knesset. After mentioning the president of Iran, he said: "Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along."
"We have heard this foolish delusion before," Bush said. "As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is _ the false comfort of appeasement.'"
It's unclear whether the 2008 campaign will feature attacks comparable to the Swiftboat ads. But if it does, the response is almost certain to be quicker and angrier than anything seen four years ago.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Charles Babington covers the presidential campaign for The Associated Press.