President Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry took each other to task on issues ranging from Iraq to health care to assault weapons today as they stepped up their campaigns in battleground states ahead of the Nov. 2 election.
Appearing in West Virginia, Bush accused the four-term senator from Massachusetts of taking "more different positions than all of his colleagues in the Senate combined" on the war in Iraq. Bush was responding to Kerry's charges this week that the Bush administration has mismanaged the war, leading the nation into a quagmire that has cost an estimated $200 billion with no end in sight.
"The newest wrinkle is that Senator Kerry has now decided we are spending too much money in Iraq, even though he criticized us earlier for not spending enough," Bush said at a rally in Huntington, W.Va. "One thing about Senator Kerry's position is clear: If he had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power and would still be a threat to the security of the world."
The Kerry campaign struck back with a statement charging that "George Bush has been consistently wrong in Iraq," taking the country to war "in a rush" without sufficient support from U.S. allies and "without a plan to win the peace."
As a result, Americans are paying $200 billion and U.S. troops are suffering nearly 90 percent of the casualties, the statement said. It added: "Bush is shortchanging America on everything from jobs to health care, making us weaker here at home. John Kerry would not have done just one thing differently when it comes to Iraq, he would have done almost everything differently."
Joining Bush on the campaign trail, which takes him by bus from West Virginia into Ohio, was Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, a renegade Democrat who gave the keynote speech at last week's Republican National Convention. Miller told the crowd that "George W. Bush is a Republican we Democrats can proudly support."
Kerry, campaigning in Missouri, accused Bush of kowtowing to the National Rifle Association by refusing to press for congressional extension of a 10-year-old ban on sales of assault weapons. Failure to push for renewal of the ban, which expires Monday, raises questions about Bush's commitment to fighting terrorism, Kerry charged.
"In the al Qaeda manual on terror, they were telling people to go out and buy assault weapons, to come to America and buy assault weapons," Kerry said at a town hall meeting in St. Louis. "You can't fight a war on terror and you can't make our streets safe . . . selling assault weapons in the streets of America" he said. "But George Bush . . . never pushed the Congress to pass it, never stood up, caves in to the NRA, gives in to the special interests, and America's streets will not be as safe because of the choice George Bush is making."
Spokesmen for Bush said he was willing to sign an extension if Congress passed one. Republican congressional leaders have said there is not enough support for such a bill.
In a statement, Kerry asked, "Why is George Bush making the job of the terrorists easier and making the job for America's police officers harder? Here's the answer: the NRA put the squeeze on George Bush and they're spending tens of millions of dollars to support his campaign. . . ."
Kerry added that he supports the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on the right to bear arms and has been a hunter all his life. "But I don't think we need to make the job of the terrorists any easier."
The recriminations over Iraq and assault weapons came as the Bush campaign announced a new ad charging that Kerry's attacks on Bush over Medicare amounted to "hypocrisy." The ad asserts that Kerry "voted five times to raise Medicare premiums" and missed 36 of 38 Medicare votes in the Senate last year.
At his town hall meeting in St. Louis, Kerry said Bush's Medicare bill, which he signed into law last year, subordinates the welfare of the elderly and their families to "special interests" -- notably the insurance, drug and health care industries, which Kerry said have donated more than $25 million to Bush political campaigns and affiliated groups.
"The truth is George Bush sold a bill of goods to the American people, while he gave a bag of goodies to his special interest friends," Kerry said. He pointed to a 17 percent hike in Medicare premiums just hours after Bush promised the elderly immediate help in his convention acceptance speech.