President Bush today delivered his sharpest attack to date on his Democratic challenger in the Nov. 2 election, charging that John F. Kerry has a "20-year record of weakness" in the U.S. Senate and would "paralyze America" in the war against terrorism if elected.
In a speech before supporters in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., that the White House billed as a major address on domestic and national security issues, Bush returned to familiar themes of his reelection campaign, but used harsher language as he sought to rebound from what was widely considered a lackluster performance in his debate with the four-term Massachusetts senator last week.
Bush also lashed out at Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who debated Vice President Cheney in Cleveland last night.
While attempting to sharpen the differences between himself and Kerry, Bush invoked nationalistic arguments, accusing Kerry of wanting to give foreigners a say in U.S. actions abroad in defense of national security.
In a lighter vein, Bush also alluded a couple of times to his own debate performance, in which he repeatedly said the presidency was "hard work" and showed irritation when Kerry was speaking.
"It wasn't easy for my opponent to become the single most liberal member of the Senate," Bush said. "You might even say it was hard work."
Describing what he called "the real difference" in the campaign, Bush said, "My opponent is a tax-and-spend liberal. I'm a compassionate conservative. My opponent wants to empower government. I want to use government to empower people."
The Kerry campaign labeled the speech "Bush's debate mulligan," accusing him of trying to make up for deficiencies in his encounter with Kerry last Thursday in Florida.
"If there was any confusion about whether George Bush is honest with the American people, this speech confirms that he is not," Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said in a statement. "This was a mulligan speech where the president tried to redo the debate from last week by giving a speech full of untruths he couldn't say on stage with John Kerry because he knew Kerry would knock them down. George Bush needs to get real with the American people and start telling the truth."
Responding to Bush's accusations that Kerry has a record of raising taxes and swelling federal deficits, the statement said that during his Senate career, Kerry has voted for more than 600 tax cuts. It added: "Bush attacked Kerry on the deficit, but Bush has taken us from a $5 trillion surplus to a $3 trillion deficit and has no plan to pay for his trillions of promises."
Bush did not announce any new policies or initiatives in his speech, but he offered a somewhat different rationale for last year's invasion of Iraq than he has given in the past.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he said, "America had to assess every potential threat in a new light," especially the risk that terrorists would obtain weapons of mass destruction to use against Americans.
"We had to take a hard look at everyplace where terrorists might get those weapons, and one regime stood out: the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein," Bush said. "There was a risk, a real risk, that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons or materials or information to terrorist networks. In the world after September the 11th, that was a risk we could not afford to take."
In last week's debate, Kerry "came down firmly on every side of the Iraq war," Bush charged.
"Senator Kerry said our soldiers and Marines are not fighting for a mistake but also called the liberation of Iraq a colossal error," Bush said. "He said we need to do more to train Iraqis, but he also said we shouldn't be spending so much money over there. He said he wants to hold a summit meeting so he can invite other countries to join what he calls the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. He said terrorists are pouring across the Iraqi border but also said that fighting those terrorists is a diversion from the war on terror."
To laughter from the audience, Bush said, "You hear all that and you can understand why somebody would make a face."
Bush said, "I refuse to stand by while dangers gather." After Sept. 11, "the path to safety is the path of action, and I will continue to defend the safety of the United States of America."
Kerry, Bush said, has a "September 10th mindset" that would "paralyze America in a dangerous world." He vowed, "I will never hand over America's security decisions to foreign leaders and international bodies that do not have America's interests at heart."
Bush said his opponent has sent a signal that his overriding goal would be to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq according to "artificial timetables" for political ends.
"Senator Kerry assures us that he's the one to win a war he calls a mistake, an error and a diversion," Bush said. "But you can't win a war you don't believe in fighting. On Iraq, Senator Kerry has a strategy of retreat. I have a strategy of victory."
The Kerry campaign said in its response that contrary to Bush's claim that Kerry does not understand the post-9/11 world, it was the president who "took his eye off the war on terror and al Qaeda" by diverting resources to the war on Iraq and ultimately creating a "terrorist haven" there that did not exist before the invasion.
Referring in his speech to last night's vice presidential debate, Bush said, "Americans saw two very different visions of our country, and two different hairdos. I didn't pick my vice president for his hairdo; I picked him for his judgment, his experience."
Another reference to Edwards, a first-term senator who made millions as a trial lawyer in his home state, came when Bush charged that "frivolous lawsuits" are driving up health care costs.
"We need a president who will stand up to the trial lawyers in Washington, not put one on the ticket," Bush said.
Delivering a Democratic rebuttal after the speech, Rep. Jane Harman of California said the faulty mindset before the Sept. 11 attacks belonged to the Bush administration, which was "not looking forward" on terrorist threats.
"There are huge mistakes on this president's watch in the war on terror," Harman said on CNN. "We need someone who will level with the American people, tell them the truth and change these failed policies."
She also accused Bush of setting up a "straw man" in today's speech when he criticized Kerry's support for an International Criminal Court.
Bush said the court "would allow unaccountable foreign prosecutors and judges to put American soldiers on trial," creating "a legal nightmare for our troops." Bush pledged, "As long as I'm your president, Americans in uniform will answer to the officers and laws of the United States, not to the International Criminal Court in The Hague."
Harman, the top Democratic on the House Intelligence Committee, said there was no question of U.S. soldiers going before the court for actions in combat.