But firefighters and victims' families are critics he cannot debate. And the judgment of public opinion has been a terrible, swift sword. Some 54% said his use of 9/11 imagery was inappropriate, and only 42% - his base - said it was appropriate, according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll. Worse, Kerry has plunged ahead. Even worse, 57% want a 'new direction'.
The rejection of the central element of Bush's version of his story is an unexpected shock to him and the Republicans. 'I am amazed they have been thrown on the defensive,' James Pinkerton told me. Pinkerton was research director for George Bush senior's 1988 campaign and responsible for developing the attack lines against the Democratic opponent. 'They weren't ready for any of it,' he says of this Bush campaign. 'They just assume it's all pro-them on 9/11. It didn't dawn on them it cuts different ways. If they aren't ready for this, what are they ready for?'
The trauma of September 11 has been squandered as a political factor. Just as Bush has misspent the goodwill of the world, he has wasted his opportunity to create any consensus at home. He had planned to run his campaign on the Bismarckian formula of the primacy of foreign policy and Kulturkampf. But his trifecta has been turned upside down: David Kay's confession that 'we were all wrong' on WMD in Iraq; job stagnation; increased recriminations about 9/11 as the commission begins its work in earnest. Bush, moreover, is patently using 9/11 not for 'changing times' but to advance his reactionary social agenda. Rather than appearing 'steady', he is setting himself against change, including changing his own policies. What he has left is a negative campaign. If he cannot elevate himself on the presidential pedestal he must throw himself into the abattoir of the culture war.
I expected the 911 ads, despite Bush's promise not to use it in his campaign, but I am astonished they have failed so completely. The interesting question now is whether Bush's invocation of 911 leaves him open to question on what precisely he did on that day as commander-in-chief. Other than get himself far out of harm's way.