Democrat John F. Kerry yesterday denounced as "outrageous and shameful" Vice President Cheney's statement that Americans risk another terrorist attack if President Bush is not reelected, as congressional Democrats assailed the credibility of a leading administration voice on national security.
Kerry, interviewed in Minnesota by a local television station, said Cheney's statement made it clear that the president and the vice president "will say anything and do anything in order to get elected."
"It is outrageous and shameful to make the war on terror an instrument of their politics," Kerry said. "I defended this country when I was a young man, and they chose not to. And I will defend this country as president of the United States."
Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards, meanwhile, called on Bush to repudiate Cheney's statement, saying it was "calculated to divide us on the issues of safety and security for the American people."
Bush did not respond to reporters' queries about the subject at the White House. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan later stood by Cheney's warning without repeating it. "There are differences in how the two candidates approach the war on terrorism, and that's what the vice president was talking about in his remarks," McClellan said.
Cheney, in Des Moines on Tuesday, delivered the campaign's message that the United States would be safer in Bush's hands with cutting-torch directness, saying, "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2nd, that we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again."
He continued, "That we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind-set, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts and that we're not really at war."
The comments underscore a pattern in which the vice president has acted as the leading edge of the Bush-Cheney communications machine on controversial security issues such as the Iraq war, the hunt for weapons of mass destruction and the fight against al Qaeda, issues in which Cheney has often gone further in making the administration's case than the president. Republicans say Cheney's role capitalizes on the vice president's expertise and authority, as well as his ability to deliver the toughest, most volatile charges in a credible, low-key manner.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said he did not know the context of the remarks but he believed that Cheney spoke from "a very strong feeling" that Bush would be stronger as commander in chief than Kerry, saying the president "will not compromise when it comes to terrorism, and it is crystal clear where he stands."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said that Cheney's comments crossed the line of acceptable rhetoric and urged Bush to dissociate himself from them.
"It is completely inappropriate, and dangerous, for the vice president to in effect threaten the American people, to be part of instilling fear into our country," Pelosi said. "If the United States is attacked by terrorists before the next president is inaugurated, it will be because this president was so focused on Iraq that he was distracted from getting the job done in dealing with the clear and present danger that al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden pose to our country."
In a change that highlighted the sensitivity of Cheney's statement, the White House yesterday released a revised version of the transcript of his remarks. The official transcript, posted on the White House Web site Tuesday afternoon and e-mailed to reporters, said: "(I)t's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2nd, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again."
In a version released Tuesday to reporters traveling with Cheney, however, the period at the end of "hit again" was removed and replaced with a comma, which linked his blunter statement to his standard stump language expressing concern that future attacks would be treated as "just criminal acts, and that we're not really at war."
Yesterday, the transcript on the White House Web site was altered to make Cheney's remarks one sentence. Cheney's White House spokesman, Kevin Kellems, issued a statement saying that the first official transcript "contained a typographical error" and was an "interim draft." "These types of corrections are not uncommon in the transcription of verbal statements," Kellems said. "The final transcript accurately reflects the statement as delivered, which is clear when watching video of the event."
Staff writers Vanessa Williams in Clarksburg, W.Va., and Charles Babington in Washington contributed
to this report.