President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry, stumping in the Southwest before their final debate Wednesday, assailed each other today on issues ranging from terrorism to energy policy.

Bush sought to capitalize on a remark in which Kerry expressed the desire to curtail the threat of terrorism to that of a "nuisance." The senator from Massachusetts laid out a five-point energy plan and accused Bush of favoring powerful friends in the oil industry over American consumers.

Addressing a rally in Hobbs, N.M., Bush seized on Kerry's comments in a New York Times Magazine interview that was published on Sunday.

"Just this weekend, we saw new evidence that Senator Kerry fundamentally misunderstands the war on terror," Bush said. "Earlier he questioned whether it was really a war at all, describing it as primarily a law enforcement and intelligence-gathering operation, instead of a threat that demands the full use of American power.

"Now, just this weekend, Senator Kerry talked of reducing terrorism to -- quote -- nuisance -- end quote -- and compared it to prostitution and illegal gambling. See, I couldn't disagree more. Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of nuisance. Our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive, destroying terrorists, and spreading freedom and liberty around the world."

Bush's remarks followed the release of a new political advertisement by the Bush campaign that highlights Kerry's comment and asks, "How can Kerry protect us when he doesn't understand the threat?"

The Kerry campaign responded with its own ad to denounce what it called "the latest distortions from the Bush campaign" and focus on an earlier Bush remark that "I don't think you can win" the war on terrorism.

"Once again, the Bush campaign is insulting the basic intelligence of the public by resorting to tired and desperate tactics to cling to power," said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the campaign of Kerry and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. "Considering that George Bush doesn't think we can win the war on terror, let Osama Bin Laden escape and rushed into Iraq with no plan to win the peace, it's no surprise that his campaign is distorting every word John Kerry has ever said."

Singer called the ad "a dishonest and disingenuous way to campaign for president and another pathetic attempt to play the politics of fear."

According to the New York Times Magazine, Kerry, asked what would make Americans feel safe again, replied: "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance. As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."

At his rally in Hobbs, N.M., Bush also touted his energy plan and urged Congress to pass it.

He said his plan " encourages conservation" and the production of renewable energy sources, but "also recognizes that we can explore for natural gas in environmentally friendly ways."

Bush reiterated his charges that Kerry's spending programs would force him to raise taxes on the middle class, despite the senator's insistence that his plan would increase taxes only on those earning more than $200,000 a year and that the rest of Americans would get a tax cut.

"The problem is, to keep that promise he'd have to break almost all his other promises," Bush said. "His plan to raise taxes on the top two income brackets would raise about $600 billion, according to our counters, about $800 billion according to his . . . counters. The problem is, is that his spending plans will cost almost four times as much, $2.2 trillion. You can't have it both ways. To pay for all the big spending programs he's outlined during his campaign, he's going to have to raise your taxes. See, he can run, but he cannot hide."

Appearing in Santa Fe, N.M., Kerry pushed his plan to make America independent of Middle East oil and charged that Bush's policies have benefited oil companies while squeezing American families and damaging the country's security, economy and environment.

He said that since Bush took office, gasoline prices have risen 30 percent to reach record highs, costing Americans $34 billion while the three largest U.S. oil companies have earned a record $38.6 billion in profits. In addition, the cost of heating the average home with heating oil has gone up 91 percent, Kerry said.

"A thirty percent increase in gas prices means a lot more profit for this president's friends in the oil industry," Kerry said. "But for most middle class Americans, the Bush gas tax is a tax increase they can't afford. The funny thing is, George Bush is trying to scare you into thinking that I'm going to raise your taxes. But to borrow a saying, when it comes to George Bush's record on gas prices, he can run but he can't hide."

Kerry said, "When it comes to developing a real energy policy, George Bush has run out of gas." He said the administration's energy plan "warms the hearts of their powerful friends and leaves you out in the cold," offering tax breaks totaling nearly $15 billion for the oil and gas industries and providing "sweetheart deals for Halliburton," the company formerly headed by Vice President Cheney. "It's no wonder Senator John McCain has called the Bush bill the 'No lobbyist left behind act,'" Kerry said.

"Worst of all, George Bush's plan does nothing to reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil," Kerry said. He said his own plan would "harness the full force of America's technology and make this nation independent of Middle East oil in 10 years." He said it would also "increase fuel efficiency, lower energy prices, produce alternative and renewable sources of energy, and create new jobs here at home."

Energy policy is one of the likely topics in the third and final presidential debate, scheduled for Wednesday night in Tempe, Ariz. The debate is to focus on domestic issues, according to a format agreed upon by both campaigns. The first debate, in Florida, was devoted to foreign policy and national security matters, while the second -- held in St. Louis last week in a town-hall-style forum -- was open to questions on any subject submitted by voters in the audience.

Cheney, addressing supporters in a school gymnasium in Medford, N.J., devoted his 20-minute stump speech today largely to the threat of terrorism and what he said was Kerry's inability to handle it, Washington Post staff writer Dana Milbank reported.

Cheney also included passages scolding Kerry for saying preemptive U.S. military action abroad should meet a "global test" to justify it, and he mocked the senator's claim not to have altered positions on Iraq.

"The senator, who likes to say he never wavers, wavered within the course of a debate," Cheney said of Kerry's debate performance Friday.

The other speakers at the Cheney event were even more pointed. After Cheney arrived in Medford, one of the warm-up speakers, Dave Jones, president of the State Troopers Fraternal Association of New Jersey, suggested to the crowd that terrorists support Kerry.

If "Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein were able to go to the polls, who do you think they'd vote for?" Jones asked, saying those in the room were voting the other way.

Cheney and Bush tested the outer limits of the presidential battleground states today. While Cheney spoke in New Jersey, a state thought to be safely in Kerry's column, Bush went from New Mexico to a campaign stop in Colorado, which is expected to be solidly for Bush. Polls in both New Jersey and Colorado have indicated a closer race than initially expected.

Edwards, meanwhile, held a town hall meeting in Newton, Iowa, before heading to Missouri, another battleground state, for a rally in Kansas City.