Bush's remarks produced a furious response from Democrats. In a conference call arranged by the Kerry campaign, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) issued an extraordinary rebuke of the administration. Because of missing explosives, "my kid and a lot of other kids might get their ass over there and get blown up by these because of their civilian incompetence," he said, his voice rising to a shout.
Campaigning in Florida, Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), kept the emphasis on the missing explosives. "What is he talking about?" he said of Bush's charge that Kerry is "denigrating" the troops. "Aren't we sick and tired of George Bush and Dick Cheney using our troops as shields to protect their own jobs instead of doing everything they should to protect our troops? Our men and women in uniform did their job. George Bush didn't do his."
Vice President Cheney, also in Florida, kept his focus on security, too, charging that Kerry "is trying every which way to cover up his record on defense, which is one of weakness." Standing near a 1942 Stearman biplane that George H.W. Bush flew as a young man, Cheney said in Kissimmee: "President Bush understands the war on terror and has a strategy for winning it; Senator Kerry does not."
The Kerry campaign said the larger issue is Bush's failure to secure postwar Iraq. "He's doomed to make the same mistakes all over again," Kerry said. "Three hundred and eighty tons of explosives that could be in the hands of terrorists, and he would do exactly the same?" He called Cheney the "chief minister of disinformation" for leading a White House effort to discredit its critics and blame others for allowing the cache to disappear.
All this week, Bush has been seeking to appeal to Democrats. He appeared Wednesday with Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.), who said at a rally near Youngstown, Ohio, that he sees the "ranks growing every day" of Democrats for Bush. Bush said he, not Kerry, follows the strong-defense tradition of Democrats such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and John F. Kennedy. Bush, who met in Michigan on Wednesday evening with more than two dozen African Americans, including boxing promoter Don King, also told supporters he had common views with Lyndon B. Johnson and Hubert H. Humphrey.
In response to Bush's mention of Democrats, the Democratic National Committee issued a statement from Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, the late president's daughter, saying: "All of us who revere the strength and resolve of President Kennedy will be supporting John Kerry on Election Day."
The tenor of Wednesday and recent days suggests that whatever the original intentions of the campaigns, both sides seem content to let the debate in the final days be about security. In a television ad released Wednesday, the Kerry campaign thanks U.S. forces in Iraq. "As we see the deepening crisis and chaos in Iraq, as we choose a new commander in chief and a fresh start, we will always support and honor those who serve," the ad says.
Bush released an ad with a similar theme, in which he says he will defend the nation, "whatever it takes," and recalls: "I've met with the parents and wives and husbands who have received a folded flag. And in those military families, I have seen the character of a great nation."
While Bush continued to predict victory, he also expressed a note of stoicism. "On good days and on bad days, whether the polls are up or the polls are down, I am determined to win this war on terror and to protect the American people, and I will always support the men and women who wear the nation's uniform," he said.
VandeHei is traveling with Kerry. Staff writers John Wagner, traveling with Edwards; Lyndsey Layton, traveling with Cheney; and Bradley Graham in Washington contributed to this report.