NEW YORK, Feb. 23 -- Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry charged here Monday that President Bush is "on the run" from what he termed a failed record on jobs, health care and terrorism as the Massachusetts senator defended himself against Republican criticism that he favors higher taxes and opposed major weapons systems.
Kerry looked past rival Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and the 10 primaries on March 2 that could settle the Democratic nomination battle to focus on Bush's decision to jump into the presidential campaign with a Monday night speech to the Republican Governors Association outlining the themes of his reelection bid.
"I think George Bush is on the run, and I think he's on the run because he doesn't have a record to run on," Kerry told reporters after two campaign appearances here.
Kerry, who campaigned in New York's Harlem and later in Queens, said that under Bush, the nation has lost 3 million jobs, several million more Americans have lost health insurance, and the country is no safer from terrorist threats. "That's the truth of what is happening," he said. "Tonight, you'll hear words. Today, Americans are living the truth."
Edwards campaigned Monday morning in New York, where he talked with workers about job losses, a key part of his message, then flew to Georgia. Throughout the day, he appealed to supporters of former Vermont governor Howard Dean to join his campaign.
Edwards launched television commercials in Georgia, Ohio and Upstate New York, and the Kerry campaign countered by purchasing advertising time in the same three states. Kerry plans to spend at least $1 million in hopes of preventing Edwards from winning enough states next week to keep the contest going to a round of southern contests on March 9. There are contests in Idaho, Utah and Hawaii on Tuesday.
Kerry appeared far more concerned about Bush's decision to jump into the campaign Monday and sought to preempt the president's speech by accusing Bush and the Republicans of distorting where he stands on taxes and defense. By the end of the day, the Kerry campaign and Bush's GOP allies were in a major e-mail exchange over Kerry's record on defense as a senator and a Senate candidate.
The defense debate began over the weekend, when Kerry challenged Bush to a debate about the Vietnam War era, asserting that the Republicans were impugning his and other Democrats' patriotism. Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot responded that the Republicans were challenging Kerry's record, not his patriotism.
Asked Monday whether it was fair game to challenge his record, Kerry responded, "That's not what they're doing. That's the game that they play." Kerry said the Bush campaign had surreptitiously tried to impugn Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the GOP primaries and had done the same thing against then-Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) in 2002.
"They suggested he was weak," Kerry said. "That's the underlying message of their attack. They haven't come to you and said this [weapons] system is a great system and we need this system and John Kerry voted against this system. They're saying he voted against defense."
As a candidate for the Senate in 1984, Kerry proposed eliminating a series of weapons systems, including the B-1 and B-2 bombers, the F-14A, F-14D and F-15 fighter jets, the Aegis air-defense cruiser, the Patriot missile system and the M1 Abrams tank, among others. Kerry told the Boston Globe last year that some of those proposals were "ill-advised, and I think some of them are stupid in the context of the world we find ourselves in right now and the things that I've learned since then."
Asked Monday when he changed his mind and which proposals were ill-advised, Kerry replied, "I never voted for one of those, I don't think, so I very quickly came to that conclusion when I was in the United States Senate in 1985 and 1986."
Kerry immediately amended that statement, saying he had opposed former president Ronald Reagan's missile defense system, anti-satellite weaponry and the MX missile. "I think I've tried to do things that made sense for the long-term defense of our country," he said.
That touched off a flurry of documents from the Republican National Committee and the Bush campaign citing votes Kerry made against a number of those weapons systems, and a response from the Kerry campaign asserting that he had sought to cut fat from the Pentagon budget but had supported a strong defense throughout out his career.
Kerry also charged that the Bush campaign had dubbed its upcoming advertising campaign "Operation Carpet Bombing." But Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief media adviser, denied that charge and accused the Kerry campaign of fabrication. "I have never heard the words 'operation carpet bombing' mentioned by anyone at the Bush campaign ever," he said in an e-mailed statement.
Kerry also responded to GOP criticism that he and Democrats want to raise taxes. He has proposed repealing the cuts in the income tax rates for Americans earning more than $200,000. "If George Bush wants to defend people earning more than $200,000 a year, instead of providing health care to all Americans and investing in education" and other domestic programs, "that's his choice," he said.
Campaigning in New York, Edwards listened sympathetically as workers from the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees told of their concerns about layoffs and outsourcing of jobs to low-wage states and abroad. "We need a president who understands what happened to you," Edwards told Omar Alexander, 59, who said he was laid off as a textile cutter after 33 years. "Because that person will fight for you. I take this personally."
Later, in Albany, Ga., Edwards dismissed Bush's campaign speech as empty rhetoric. "Unless he's found a way to create millions of jobs, unless he's found a way to solve the health care crisis, unless he can improve the economic security situation here at home, I can't imagine he'll have much to say tonight."
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.