President Bush today accused Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry of advocating "defeatism" and "retreat" in the war in Iraq, and Kerry charged that the president has made the nation less secure by mismanaging the war and misleading the public about it.
The recriminations, in dueling speeches by Bush in New Jersey and Kerry in Florida, came as Floridians began casting their ballots under an early-voting system that started today, 15 days before the Nov. 2 election.
In some of his harshest rhetoric against Kerry to date, Bush used what his campaign described as a major national security address to try to brand the Massachusetts senator as a misguided politician who has sought to weaken American intelligence and military power and who would, if elected, make the nation and the world more dangerous.
Speaking in Marlton, N.J., to a crowd of supporters, Bush said Kerry "has a fundamental misunderstanding of the war on terror." Bush said of Kerry, "He says that preemptive action is unwise, not only against regimes, but even against terrorist organizations." Kerry's approach to terrorist strikes, Bush asserted, "would permit a response only after America is hit."
Bush referred to a remark by Kerry during the second of three presidential debates, in which the senator said preemptive U.S. military action abroad should meet a "global test" of credibility.
"Before we act to defend ourselves, he thinks we need permission from foreign capitals," Bush charged. "Senator Kerry's global test is nothing more than an excuse to constrain the actions of our own country in a dangerous world."
Kerry said in the same debate and other speeches that he would never give foreign leaders a veto over U.S. security interests, and the senator's campaign has accused Bush of distorting his words and taking them out of context.
Bush staunchly defended his administration's policy in Iraq, even as he acknowledged that "we can expect more violence" as the country moves toward elections scheduled for January. "The dream of freedom is moving forward in Iraq," Bush said, "The terrorists know it, and they hate it, and they fight it."
Kerry, he charged, "has chosen the easy path of protest and defeatism. He refuses to acknowledge progress or praise the growing democratic spirit in Iraq."
"America is safer today because Afghanistan and Iraq are fighting terrorists instead of harboring them," Bush said. Returning to a familiar theme, he recounted what he described as an array of different positions Kerry has taken on Iraq.
"Having gone back and forth so many times, the senator from Massachusetts has now flip-flopped his way to a dangerous position," Bush said. "My opponent has settled on . . . a strategy of retreat. He has sent the signal that America's overriding goal in Iraq would be to leave, even if the job is not done."
Kerry, in a speech in Tampa, Fla., said the war in Iraq has made that country "a breeding ground for terrorism" and has diverted resources from the enemy responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks: Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda network.
"Mr. President, when it comes to the war in Iraq, it's time to come clean and acknowledge what your military leaders have told you privately," Kerry said. "Mr. President, you can choose to ignore the facts, but in the end you can't hide the truth from the American people. The bottom line, Mr. President, is that your mismanagement of the war has made America and Iraq less safe and less secure than they could have and should have been today."
Kerry pledged, "I will never as president rush to war without a plan to win the peace. I will never send our soldiers into harm's way without the best training and equipment in the world. And I will never allow our policy to be hijacked by ideologues at the expense of the best advice from our best military commanders."
Earlier, Kerry told voters in West Palm Beach, Fla., that "the truth is beginning to come out" about the Bush administration's mistakes in the occupation of Iraq.
Kerry also urged voters to take advantage of Florida's early voting.
"This vote is the most important that you'll cast in your lifetime," he told a crowd of supporters under a bright morning sun.
Before leaving the White House for his campaign appearance in New Jersey, Bush signed a bill that gives the Department of Homeland Security about $33 billion for the 2005 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. The total approved by Congress comes to nearly $900 million more than Bush requested and includes $1.1 billion in grants to states based on population. But its allocation of $3.6 billion for police and other emergency responders is about $500 million less than the fiscal 2004 total.
On arrival in New Jersey, Bush said, "It might surprise some to see a Republican presidential candidate in New Jersey in late October. The reason I'm here, with your help we'll carry the state of New Jersey."
Although Democrat Al Gore beat Bush by 16 percentage points in New Jersey in 2000 and a Republican presidential candidate has not won the state in 16 years, Bush's appearance could force the Democrats to spend more time and money to keep New Jersey in their column, Washington Post staff writer Dana Milbank reported.
While most polls show Kerry ahead in New Jersey, one showed the race to be a tie. Still, Democrats have been sufficiently worried about the situation that they sent vice presidential nominee John Edwards to the state 10 days ago.
Edwards, a first-term senator from North Carolina, launched a preemptive strike against Bush's New Jersey speech, telling a rally in Fort Myers, Fla., that Bush was "exploiting a national tragedy for personal gain" and trying to "con the American people" by playing on people's fears of terrorism in a state that was hit hard by the Sept. 11 attacks in neighboring New York City.
Florida, considered a major prize among a shrinking number of swing states, is one of four states that began early voting today. The others were Texas, Colorado and Arkansas. In-person voting also has begun in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico.
In Florida, steady streams of voters cast ballots at polling sites, deciding to beat the rush on Election Day. Many voters seemed mindful of the closeness of the 2000 election, which Bush won when he edged Al Gore in Florida by only 537 votes.
"If you vote early now, we don't have to stay up late on Tuesday night November 2nd," Kerry told the rally in West Palm Beach.
He charged that Bush in his New Jersey speech was "going to mislead America again about my record on defense and security." He said he was proud to have supported during his four-term Senate career "the largest defense budgets" in the nation's history, as well as "every single weapons system that we've used in Iraq."
Referring to his service in the Vietnam War, Kerry said, "I've bled for our country as a young man, and I will defend the United States of America" as president.
Although Bush "is always talking tough" about defense, Kerry said, the top U.S. commander in Iraq "pleaded with the Pentagon for critical supplies in order to counter the growing insurgency" in the country last year. He was referring to a story in today's Washington Post that quoted Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez as complaining in a letter last winter that his supply situation was so poor that it threatened his troops' ability to sustain combat operations.
"Despite the president's arrogant boasting that he's done everything right in Iraq and that he's made no mistakes, the truth is beginning to come out, and it's beginning to catch up with him," Kerry said. "And on November 2nd, it will catch up with him."
He charged, "The president's tough talk about always supporting the troops is nothing more than empty rhetoric."
Kerry added that last week, retired Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East at the time of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, "admitted that disbanding the Iraqi army last year was a mistake" and that it "created a dangerous security vacuum."
"We deserve new leadership with fresh credibility that can wage a more effective war," Kerry said. "As president, I'll get those [Iraqi] troops trained rapidly. . . . I'll get the target off American soldiers, and I'll get our troops home with the job done."
Addressing Bush, the Democrat said, "Mr. President, your management or mismanagement of this war, your diversion from al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, your shift of the troops to Iraq when where was no connection to 9/11 . . . has made America less safe, not more secure, and we need a president who knows how to make America secure."
The Bush campaign, meanwhile, stressed a theme that is expected to be a major focus for the president and Vice President Cheney in the 15 days before the election.
The campaign today unveiled a new television ad that accuses Kerry of having "repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the war on terror." The script says, "Either we fight terrorists abroad or face them here." It concludes, "John Kerry and his liberal allies . . . Are they a risk we can afford to take today?
Edwards, speaking in Fort Myers, struck back, saying, "George Bush today is making one last stand to con the American people into believing that he is the only one who can fight and win the war on terrorism."
He said Bush "will fail in the war against terrorism because he does not know how to lead."
Referring to the president's speech in New Jersey, Edwards said, "George Bush is playing on people's deepest fears. He's exploiting a national tragedy for personal gain, and it's the lowest kind of politics. . . . One of the greatest signs of weakness and failure is to resort to the politics of fear, and that's what George Bush is doing today."
Cheney, meanwhile, made a quick stop in West Virginia today to sharpen his attack on Kerry's fitness to fight terrorism, saying the Massachusetts senator would preside over America with the same softness that prompted the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia after U.S. military personnel were killed in Mogadishu, Washington Post staff writer Michael Laris reported.
Terrorists gleaned from that episode, which occurred during president Clinton's first term, that "they can change our policy," Cheney said. He said President Bush, by contrast, is demonstrating the "steadfastness" needed to win the war on terror.
The vice president, speaking to supporters at a diner in Charleston, cast the election in especially expansive terms. At issue, he said, is not a four-year presidential term, but implementation of an approach to national security with implications for perhaps "40 or 50 years."
Cheney also listed two decades of terrorist attacks against America, including the deadly attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon when Ronald Reagan was president, as examples of why Kerry lacks sufficient judgment as a leader.
"None of those strike me as fitting the criteria of being a nuisance," Cheney said, another of many references to a Kerry comment in a New York Times Magazine interview, in which he said America would be safer when terrorism was reduced to being no more than a nuisance, rather than a major threat.
But the vice president dismissed a second Times Magazine story from yesterday, which attributed to Bush a pledge to pursue "privatizing of Social Security" in a second term.
"It's an age-old cry," Cheney said, adding that Democrats have wrongly warned of GOP plans to undermine Social Security since his first campaign decades earlier. "It's usually a good sign when it happens because it means they are behind."
At a medical services building beside the diner that had been transformed into a GOP call center, Cheney joined volunteers making calls. Straining to hear among the campaign hubbub, Cheney spoke briefly with a potential voter.
"I understand your son's been in Iraq," Cheney said, covering his free ear with his hand to try to quiet the noise. "Thank you again. Good luck," he said seconds later.