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Candidates Scrap for Votes in Nevada

"What last night so clearly revealed is that John Kerry is not a man of strong character," Cheney said to chanting fans at Gulf Coast University. He hammered Kerry as a man without the fortitude to lead in dangerous times, calling him a "soft-on-defense liberal," and said the senator is trying to run from his record.

"He is trying to hide it, to cover it up using a little tough talk," Cheney said. He called the Democratic challenger "totally deceitful" on the issue of medical liability reform.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) waves to audience members after delivering a speech at the AARP convention in Las Vegas, Nev. (GERALD HERBERT - AP)

The campaign also sought to refocus some attention from the sharp debate over the administration's decision to invade Iraq last year. "In 1991, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and stood poised to dominate the Persian Gulf, John Kerry voted against America's sending troops to expel him," Cheney said, adding later, "He is not a steadfast leader." Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, and were expelled by a U.S.-led coalition in early 1991.

In his speech to the AARP, Kerry sought to capitalize on misgivings among seniors about Bush's Medicare law.

AARP, a powerful organization that lobbies on behalf of seniors, broke with Democratic allies in Congress and endorsed the new Medicare law in 2003, drawing the wrath of Kerry and many other longtime supporters.

"The AARP tried to work with the president, but in the end, the president was not working for America's seniors," Kerry said. "Maybe that's why he would not even show up to defend his bill." Bush was in Las Vegas, but turned down an invitation to speak at the convention.

Since working to enact the law, AARP officials have criticized the implementation of it and Bush himself for not allowing seniors to import less costly drugs from Canada. Kerry voted against the Medicare law, and polls show a majority of seniors oppose it. The crowd, which appeared cool to the new law, cheered Kerry loudly, especially when he railed against the president for favoring corporations over middle-class workers. Republicans once considered the law a political goldmine, but worry Bush will not benefit at all because the bulk of the new prescription drug benefit does not kick in until 2006.

Kerry vowed to rewrite the law if elected president and immediately implement two cost-savings measures: allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prices with drug companies and permitting seniors to import less expensive medicines. Bush opposed both ideas, as did the Republican Congress.

At the convention, Kerry rolled out a new campaign speech, packed full of populist rhetoric and sharp indictments of the Bush administration. Kerry ridiculed the president for saying in last night's debate that healthy people should forgo flu vaccinations as way to save supplies for the sick and elderly.

"Sounds just like his health care plan: hope and pray you do not get sick." An overarching theme of the speech -- and the campaign's strategy for the final days before the election -- was that Bush is disconnected not only from the problems facing Americans, but from reality altogether.

"He has spent this entire campaign trying to make us believe the unbelievable," Kerry said. He added later: "The president just does not seem to get it. He can spin until he's dizzy, but at the end of the day, who does he think the American people are going to believe? George Bush or their own eyes?"

As he enters the campaign's final days, Kerry is adjusting his strategy somewhat, with plans to deliver a series of domestic speeches on the economy, health care and jobs and dial down the personal attacks, aides said.

But Kerry is also planning to intensify attacks on what he calls Bush's disconnect from reality. In a new ad airing in Ohio, Kerry lambasted Treasury Secretary John Snow for recently claiming job losses are a "myth."

The campaign says Bush is particularly vulnerable to attacks that he is disconnected from the realities of Iraq, the economy and job losses.

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