by Maggie Haberman and Thomas M. DeFrank

The Bush reelection campaign yesterday unveiled its first three campaign commercials showcasing Ground Zero images, angering some 9/11 families who accused President Bush of exploiting the tragedy for political advantage.

"It's a slap in the face of the murders of 3,000 people," said Monica Gabrielle, whose husband died in the twin tower attacks. "It is unconscionable."

Gabrielle and several other family members said the injury was compounded by Bush's refusal to testify in open session before the 9/11 commission.

"I would be less offended if he showed a picture of himself in front of the Statue of Liberty," said Tom Roger, whose daughter was a flight attendant on doomed American Airlines Flight 11. "But to show the horror of 9/11 in the background, that's just some advertising agency's attempt to grab people by the throat."

Mindy Kleinberg said she was offended because the White House has not cooperated fully with the commission and because of the sight of remains being lifted out of Ground Zero in one of the spots.

"How heinous is that?" Kleinberg asked. "That's somebody's [loved one]."

Firefighter Tommy Fee in Rescue Squad 270 in Queens was appalled.

"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," Fee said.

But Jennie Farrell, who lost her brother, electrician James Cartier, called the ad "tastefully done," adding: "It speaks to the truth of the times. Sept. 11 ... was something beyond the realm of imagination, and George Bush ... led us through one of the darkest moments in history."

The gauzy, upbeat spots, aimed at shoring up Bush's sagging approval numbers, begin airing today on national cable networks and 50 media markets in 17 states that Bush-Cheney strategists consider electoral battlegrounds.

Two ads, including a Spanish version, show fleeting images of the World Trade Center devastation. The 30-second spots include a poignant image of an American flag fluttering defiantly amid the WTC wreckage.

One, titled "Safer, Stronger," also features a one-second shot of firefighters removing the flag-draped remains of a victim from the twisted debris.

Both ads reinforce the Ground Zero imagery with frontal shots of two firefighters. Unlike the paid actors and actresses in most of the footage, they are not ringers, but their red headgear gives them away as non-New Yorkers. The Bush campaign declined to reveal where the burly smoke-eaters actually work.

Bush officials defended the imagery as totally appropriate.

"9/11 was the defining moment of these times," campaign manager Ken Mehlman told reporters. "Because of that day, America is at war and still is."

Charging Democratic rival John Kerry with politicizing the attacks by alleging Bush has turned his back on the city, Mehlman added: "The President's never forgotten. It's a central part of his leadership."

The spots, pegged to the theme of "steady leadership in time of change," do not mention Kerry. Instead, their uplifting message hopes to refurbish Bush's battered image after two months of harsh Democratic attacks and a series of missteps by the normally surefooted White House political apparatus.

"We've been off our game for weeks," a senior Bush strategist conceded. "Thank goodness, there's plenty of time to get well, and plenty of grist to chop Kerry down to size."

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