It should not come as a surprise to anyone who has watched American politics over the past several years that George W. Bush has begun his formal reelection campaigning by exploiting the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, for political advantage. This is, after all, the president whose aides schemed on the day of the attacks to use them to get Congress to grant Bush “Fast Track” authority to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement. And it is the president whose political czar, Karl Rove, conspired with Republican Senate candidates in 2002 to employ 9/11 images as tools to attack the patriotism of Democrats, such as Georgia Senator Max Cleland, a decorated and disabled Vietnam veteran.

Everyone expected the Bush-Cheney reelection campaign to begin its television advertising campaign by branding Bush as the 9/11 candidate.

The only surprise is that the Bush political team would, after more than two years of preparation, perform the task so gracelessly.

Was there no one in the close confines of the Bush campaign with enough awareness of the sensitivities that remain — especially among the friends, families and colleagues of the dead — to suggest that it might be inappropriate to produce campaign advertisements featuring images of the dead being removed from the wreckage of the World Trade Center?

By any measure, the much-heralded opening of the Bush-Cheney Version 2.0 campaign has been a disaster for the president.

The point of the sort of gauzy, flag-flapping political advertisements that the Bush campaign has begun airing was to raise the president’s approval ratings after a Democratic primary season in which Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and his rivals landed some serious blows to Bush’s reelection prospects. Bush aides had planned to use the advertisements and a busy schedule of appearances by the president and Vice President Dick Cheney to regain dominance of the media coverage of the 2004 campaign.

Instead, the “story” of the week in which Bush was supposed to be reintroducing himself to the voters focused on the anger of people like Kristen Breitweiser over the Bush ads. “After 3,000 people were murdered on his watch, it seems that that takes an awful lot of audacity,” declared Breitweiser. “Honestly, it’s in poor taste.”

What a nightmare for the Bush campaign crew when New York City firefighter Tommy Fee was asked by a reporter about the ads and responded, “It’s as sick as people who stole things out of the place. The image of firefighters at Ground Zero should not be used for this stuff, for politics.” And Fee was not alone. Tom Ryan, a 20-year veteran with the city’s Fire Department, reacted to the use of footage from a fireman’s funeral in one of the ads bysaying, “As a firefighter who spent months at Ground Zero, it’s deeply offensive to see the Bush campaign use these images to capitalize on the greatest American tragedy of our time.”

Suddenly, family members, friends and colleagues of 9/11 victims were all over television, radio and the newspapers echoing the sentiments of Monica Gabrielle, whose husband died in the collapse of the Twin Towers. “It’s a slap in the face of the murders of 3,000 people,” Gabrielle said of the use of images of the removal of the 9/11 dead for political purposes. “It’s unconscionable.”

By Friday, just a day after the commercials began airing in battleground states, the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows group was circulating the names of a long list of family members and firefighters who were objecting to the ads.Spouses, parents and siblings of 9/11 victims were holding press conferences in New York to call for the ads to be taken down. And the critics weren’t just talking about the ads; they were making very public note of the president’s failure to cooperate with the 9/11 commission that is charged with investigating how and why the attacks occurred.

The Bush campaign had tested the ads with focus groups. They knew the use of the 9/11 images was risky; but they very much wanted to begin the process of branding 9/11 as a campaign issue and they thought they could easily dismiss any criticisms as partisan bickering. What the Bush camp failed to anticipate was the speed and the intensity of the negative response to the ads.

As the firestorm built, team Bush went into immediate damage-control mode. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was dispatched to defend the ads as a reflection of America’s “shared experience” during Bush’s term. But Giuliani refused to say whether he would exploit 9/11 images in a similar way if he was running for office, so his did not prove to be a particularly effective defense.

The Bush campaign has been counting on Karen Hughes, one of the president’s closest and most camera-friendly aides, to provide the first line of spin. She did a round of television talk shows to defend the commercials as tasteful and necessary. But, as usual, Hughes pushed the Bush line harder than was appropriate, or useful.

“I can understand why some Democrats not might want the American people to remember the great leadership and strength the president and First Lady Laura Bush brought to our country in the aftermath of (the attacks),” she grumped on “The Early Show” on CBS.

Does Hughes seriously mean to suggest that Americans have forgotten the details of September 11, 2001, or of the president’s actions in the weeks and months that followed? That’s a stretch. Even Hughes admitted, in the same interview, that, “September 11 was not just a distant tragedy.” And what aspect of the president’s “leadership” is highlighted by incorporating images of the dead being removed from Ground Zero into a campaign commercial?

More importantly, why would Hughes, an expert in the choice of words, choose to dismiss the widows, relatives and comrades of the dead as “some Democrats”? The answer speaks volumes about the thinking within the closed confines of the president’s inner circle. The Bush team’s view is that anyone who criticizes the president, even someone who lost a family member or colleague in the collapse of the twin towers, is automatically an anti-Bush partisan.

That’s a serious miscalculation by the Bush campaign. And a surprising one. Hughes and others are allowing intense loyalty to their boss to cloud their judgement. Does this mean that the Bush team, which is made up of some of the ablest political minds that money can buy, is destined to blow this reelection campaign — just as the able team of Bush’s father blew the previous president’s 1992 reelection campaign? Not necessarily; it is still a long way to Election Day and this campaign will take many unexpected turns over the next eight months. But it does suggest that the people who dressed the president up in flight-suit drag to declare the Iraq War mission accomplished last May are still off their game. In a week when they had planned to claim control of the political discourse, they lost it. Badly.