President Bush, seeking votes in a key state that polls show leaning toward his opponent, accused Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry today of failing to comprehend the war on terrorism and vowed never to show "uncertainty or weakness" in his war leadership.
The comments to supporters in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., coincided with the release of a new political advertisement, called "Wolves," that portrays Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, as weak on national defense and suggests that this would invite terrorist attacks.
The Kerry campaign denied the assertions in the ad and accused Bush of "desperately using the politics of fear" to divert attention from failures on the economy and Iraq.
"Instead of giving voters even one good reason to vote for him, George W. Bush has chosen to scare the American people with images of wolves," a Kerry spokesman said of the ad.
While Bush was campaigning today in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Kerry scheduled appearances in Wisconsin and Nevada. Vice President Cheney was stumping today in Minnesota and Iowa, and Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards was holding town hall meetings at three locations in Florida.
Speaking on the subject of women and the economy at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Kerry today made a pitch to female voters, saying that women have borne a large share of the burden from what he described as Bush's failed economic policies and job losses.
"Today, for far too many women, the American dream seems a million miles away," the Massachusetts senator said. "George Bush likes to talk about how being president is hard work. Well, Mr. President, I'm very happy to relieve you of that hard work."
He told the largely female audience, "Before the president complains about his job, he ought to come here and spend a day with you. He might learn how the women of this country juggle so much with grace and with strength."
Kerry said that although Bush is the first president in 72 years to lose jobs during his tenure, the administration keeps using "Orwellian words" in claiming that job losses are a "myth" and that "this is the best economy of our lifetime."
"How dare they?" Kerry said. "Mr. President, the millions of Americans who have lost jobs on your watch are not myths. They are middle-class Americans. They are our neighbors. . . ."
Bush, making the 41st trip of his presidency to Pennsylvania, a state he lost four years ago, said in what the White House billed as a "new" stump speech that "there is no place for confusion and no substitute for victory" in the war on terrorism. "If America shows uncertainty or weakness in this decade, the world will drift toward tragedy. This will not happen on my watch."
Later in his speech, Bush said the Nov. 2 election offers a clear choice "on the values that are so crucial to keeping America's families strong," and he rejected what he described as the values of Hollywood.
"My opponent has said that you can find the heart and soul of America in Hollywood," Bush said. "Most of us don't look to Hollywood as the source of values. The heart and soul of America is found right here in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania."
Bush was referring to a New York City fund-raiser for Kerry in July in which several entertainers criticized Bush, some of them in insulting or off-color terms. At the end of the event, Kerry thanked the entertainers generally and said they "conveyed the heart and soul of our country." He did not say, as Bush now claims, that America's heart and soul can be found in Hollywood.
In the latest Mason-Dixon poll of registered voters for MSNBC/Knight-Ridder, Kerry leads Bush in Pennsylvania by 46 percent to 45 percent, with 9 percent undecided. A new Quinnipiac poll of likely voters in the state shows Kerry up by 51 percent to 46 percent, with 4 percent undecided. Other recent statewide polls also have shown a close race in Pennsylvania, where former president Bill Clinton will make a campaign appearance for Kerry on Monday.
Nationally, a new Associated Press-Ipsos poll has Kerry leading Bush by 49 percent to 46 percent, but a Reuters/Zogby tracking poll shows Bush with the edge over Kerry by 47 percent to 45 percent. Both national polls were within the margin of error.
The latest Washington Post national tracking poll, released at 5 p.m. today, showed Bush leading Kerry 50 percent to 46 percent. This represented a slight narrowing from the previous day's survey, which put Bush ahead 51 percent to 45 percent.
Bush said to cheers from the audience in Wilkes-Barre that his administration is "transforming our volunteer Army to make sure it remains an all-volunteer Army."
He charged that Kerry "considers the war on terror primarily a law-enforcement and intelligence-gathering operation" and that the senator's top foreign policy adviser has "questioned whether it's even a war at all, saying that's just a metaphor, like the war on poverty."
Bush added, "I've got news. Anyone who thinks we're fighting a metaphor does not understand the enemy we face and has no idea how to win the war and keep America secure."
He continued to defend his decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 despite the failure to find the suspected stockpiles of banned weapons that were the main rationale for the war. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein "wanted the world to look the other way so he could restart his [weapons] programs," Bush said. "That was a risk we could not afford to take. Knowing what I know today, I would have taken the same action."
Bush also disputed Kerry's charge that the war in Iraq was a "diversion" from the war on terrorism and cited the presence in Iraq of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi.
"If Zarqawi and his associates were not busy fighting American forces in Iraq, does my opponent think they would be peaceful citizens of the world?" Bush asked sarcastically. "Does he think they'd be opening a small business somewhere?
Kerry has said the war in Iraq diverted resources away from the hunt in Afghanistan for Osama bin Laden and other leaders of the al Qaeda terrorist network, which was responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. He said in a speech yesterday that after fleeing Afghanistan, Zarqawi had operated in a part of northeastern Iraq outside Hussein's control and next to territory held by America's Kurdish allies, and he said the administration could have destroyed Zarqawi's operation.
It was only after the United States invaded Iraq and began occupying the country that it became a real "haven" for foreign terrorists, who now operate in major cities and have made common cause with Iraqi insurgents, Kerry said.
In its latest ad, which uses images of prowling wolves poised to attack, the Bush campaign charges that Kerry "voted to slash America's intelligence operations by 6 billion dollars." It says the cuts "would have weakened America's defenses, and weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm."
A response ad that the Democratic National Committee posted on its Web site switches between images of an eagle and an ostrich, as a narrator intones: "The eagle soars high above the earth; the ostrich buries its head in the sand. . . . The eagle knows when it's time to change course; the ostrich stands in one place. Given the choice in these challenging times, shouldn't we be the eagle again."
On a campaign trip across Florida, Edwards, a first-term senator from North Carolina, denounced the new Bush ad as "despicable and contemptible."
"We all know that George Bush and Dick Cheney manipulate the facts," Edwards said. "They're trying to scare the American people. . . . We have to see the truth and speak the truth."
At the outset of a two-day swing through the battleground state, Edwards also called the Bush administration incompetent for its decision to scale back CIA operations in Afghanistan in advance of the war with Iraq.
Edwards cited a Washington Post article published Friday that detailed how the Bush administration drew down CIA operations in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003 and instead steered resources toward Iraq.
"It was at a time when we had Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda on the run," Edwards said during a campaign rally in Boynton Beach. "Why did George Bush make this choice?" he asked. "This is not leadership. This is incompetence."
Edwards said that "our commander-in-chief must never lose sight of what's important to the American people. . . . We need a president who will never forget it was Osama bin Laden who led the attack that killed 3,000 Americans, not Saddam Hussein."
In a statement rebutting the "Wolves" ad, Kerry campaign spokesman Chad Clanton said, "These are desperate days for the Bush campaign with the president's job approval in the danger zone. They are desperately using the politics of fear to try and distract from President Bush's failed record on the economy and Iraq. But it won't work. This only reminds people that it's time for a fresh start and a new direction in America."
The rebuttal says Kerry proposed a $1.5 billion cut in intelligence funding in 1995 as part of a bipartisan effort to cut waste and abuse after it was discovered that the National Reconnaissance Office had hoarded $1 billion in unspent funds.
Despite Republican charges now that Kerry's proposal was "deeply irresponsible," the Republican-led Congress in 1995 approved cuts of $3.8 billion over five years from the NRO's budget, the statement notes.
Moreover, it says, Republicans led by then-Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.), who was recently appointed by Bush to head the CIA, wanted at that time to cut intelligence funding by more than Kerry did and had specifically targeted human intelligence. The statement further charges that even after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration wanted to cut an emergency FBI request for counterterrorism funding by nearly two-thirds. It says Kerry supported $250 billion in increased intelligence funding over the last eight years.
In an interview on NBC's "Today" show, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was asked if he agrees with Bush's charge that Kerry has a "fundamental misunderstanding" of the war in Iraq.
"No, but I believe that President Bush has proven his moral clarity and strength in leading American in the war on terror, and I think he's better qualified," McCain replied.
He added, "The rhetoric in this campaign is as bad on both sides or worse than I have ever seen it -- on both sides." McCain also said that "mistakes have been made" in Iraq, but he noted "mistakes are made in every war."
Asked if the president has been accurate in characterizing the situation in Iraq to the American people, McCain said, "I wouldn't say it's totally accurate, in that there are areas of great difficulty. But we have made progress in certain areas," and democratic elections will be held in Iraq in January for the first time.
In response to questions about McCain's comments today, White House spokesman Scott McClellan refused to acknowledge that the Arizona senator had disagreed with Bush about Kerry. Instead, McClellan highlighted McCain's support for the president, and he repeated the charges that Kerry has "a fundamental misunderstanding of the war on terrorism" and a "record of weakness" on national security.
Vice President Cheney, campaigning today in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, reprised his controversial assertion that Americans have "got to make the right decision" picking a commander-in-chief if the country is to defeat terror, Washington Post staff writer Michael Laris reported.
"The bottom line is, I don't have any confidence in John Kerry to be the kind of tough, aggressive commander in chief that will aggressively pursue our adversaries overseas, and I think that's a major failing because I don't think we can win the war on terror unless we aggressively go after our enemies," Cheney said. "When we think about that on Nov. 2, I think its important for us to keep that in mind, in terms of the choice we make and the consequences it has for the nation."
Cheney dismissed the Clinton administration's response to the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998, saying that only "a few cruise missiles" had been launched at terrorist training camps in Afghanistan. "That was it," Cheney said.
In answer to a question from a supporter about the hunt for bin Laden, Cheney sought to frame administration efforts given recent criticisms, including from former Bush administration anti-terrorism officials, that Iraq had been a significant diversion.
"Osama bin Laden has been a prime focus of our interest, obviously, since before 9/11, really. We have not let up for a minute," Cheney said. "You notice there haven't been any bin Laden tapes running on the air where he's out broadcasting messages . . . because we think he's probably in a deep hole someplace."
"We'll eventually get him. It's just a matter of time," Cheney said. But he said that getting rid of bin Laden by itself will not solve the problem of the thousands of terrorists who have been trained in al Qaeda's Afghan camps.
He called the fight against al Qaeda and sympathetic groups "a long hard slog."
Wagner, accompanying Edwards, reported from Florida.