Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry accused President Bush today of trying to hide damaging information about the war in Iraq and portrayed him as "divorced from reality" in that country.
Bush, meanwhile, zeroed in on what he said was a "wild claim" by Kerry that the U.S. military missed a chance to capture or kill Osama bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan, and he accused Kerry of "the worst kind of Monday morning quarterbacking."
The charges came in speeches to supporters in different parts of Wisconsin today as the two campaigns stumped for votes in the battleground state with a week to go before the Nov. 2 election.
In a campaign rally in Onalaska, Wis., Bush made an overt appeal to disenchanted Democrats to vote for him, saying many Democrats "do not recognize their party anymore."
Wisconsin, which Bush narrowly lost in 2000 by about 5,700 votes, is considered up for grabs this time as well, with its 10 electoral votes potentially crucial in a close race.
On the campaign trail in Florida, a swing state whose 27 electoral votes are a major draw for both campaigns, Vice President Cheney today sought to portray Kerry as a liberal who goes hunting to mask his hostility to gun rights.
In an address in Green Bay, Wis., Kerry charged that Bush "has failed in his fundamental obligation as commander in chief to make America as safe and secure as we should be."
The Bush campaign countered by denouncing Kerry as an inept "armchair general."
As he did in speeches yesterday, Kerry cited a report to the United Nations by the International Atomic Energy Agency saying that nearly 380 tons of high explosives have disappeared from an Iraqi weapons facility south of Baghdad. The explosives, including material under U.N. seal because of its potential use to detonate a nuclear bomb, vanished while Iraq was under U.S. occupation, U.N. and Iraqi officials indicated. But U.S. officials suggested that the explosives were gone before American forces established control.
"Just as the Bush administration's failure to secure Iraq's borders has led to thousands of terrorists flooding into the country, their failure to secure those explosives threatens American troops and the American people," Kerry said today. Faced with information about the disappearance, Bush "first tried to hide the information until after the election," Kerry charged. Then, after the loss was reported, the White House said "they couldn't guard the weapons caches because they had other priorities," Kerry said.
"Then they argued that losing the explosives wasn't really that big a deal. Finally, at the end of the day, the White House boldly declared that it just didn't happen. Without a shred of evidence to dispute the IAEA, they flatly said the weapons were gone by the time our troops got there."
Kerry blasted the president's "complete silence" on the issue despite "devastating evidence that his administration's failure here has put our troops and our citizens in greater danger." He said the episode confirms his assertion that Bush "rushed to war without a plan to win the peace" and "didn't have enough troops on the ground to get the job done. "
Later today, Vice President Cheney told supporters in Florida that "it is not at all clear those explosives were even at the weapons facility when our troops arrived."
Furthermore, Cheney told a rally at the Pensacola Junior College, Kerry doesn't "mention the 400,000 tons of explosives our troops have captured or destroyed" in Iraq.
"Senator Kerry is playing armchair general and is not doing a very good job at it," Cheney added.
The Massachusetts senator also seized on news that the administration wants an additional $70 billion early next year for Iraq and Afghanistan, raising the total cost to nearly $225 billion. "This is the incredible price of going it almost alone in Iraq," Kerry charged.
"Mr. President, what else are you being silent about?" Kerry asked. "What else are you keeping from the American people? How much more will the American people have to pay?"
He said, "The American people deserve a commander in chief who will tell the truth in good times and bad. This president has failed that fundamental test. When the president is faced with the consequences of his own wrong decisions, he doesn't confront them, he tries to hide them."
Kerry also excoriated Vice President Cheney for calling the Iraq war a remarkable success story yesterday.
"They don't see it; they don't get it; they can't fix it," Kerry said. "In virtually everything he has said -- and everything he has done -- the president has demonstrated to the American people -- and to countries around the world -- that he is divorced from reality in Iraq. If President Bush can't recognize the problems in Iraq, he won't fix them."
Kerry asserted, "We can succeed in Iraq, but only with new leadership and credibility."
He said Bush has also "failed in his obligation to protect the American people at home" because he is "too busy protecting his tax cuts for the wealthy and well-connected."
"Even as he told us we can't afford more port security, more baggage security, more border patrol agents, more firefighters and more cops, George Bush tells America that we can afford every single dime of the $89 billion in tax cuts he gave to folks making more than $1.2 million a year," Kerry said. "That's wrong, and we're going to change it."
While Kerry was stumping on the eastern side of Wisconsin, Bush was making a bus tour with three stops in the western part of the state.
In his speech in Onalaska, Bush gave his standard defense of his economic stewardship, saying, "We're headed in the right direction in America," with relatively low unemployment and rising home ownership, among other positive signs. "This is a time of fantastic opportunity," Bush said.
Despite the president's optimism, consumer confidence dropped in October for the third straight month, apparently driven by worries about job prospects, according to The Conference Board, a private research group based in New York. The decline of 3.9 points in the board's Consumer Confidence Index -- to 92.8 -- was steeper than expected and brought the index to its lowest point since March, when it stood at 88.5. It had been rising since April before falling 3 points to 98.7 in August and another 2 points in September, the Associated Press reported.
Bush pledged, in a second term, to reform a tax code that he said is "a complicated mess" and a burden on small businesses. "The code is a million pages long," he said. "American workers and small-business owners and families spent six billion hours a year filling out the forms."
Turning to national security, Bush said, "In the war on terror, there's no place for confusion, no place for weakness, no substitute for victory." He added, "On good days and on bad days, whether the polls are up or the polls are down, I am determined to win this war on terror. . . ."
Bush had harsh words for Kerry's criticism of the administration's failure to kill or capture bin Laden after the ouster of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in late 2001.
"And now he's throwing out a wild claim that he knows where bin Laden was in the fall of 2001 and that our military passed up a chance to get him at Tora Bora," Bush said. "This is unjustified criticism of the military commanders in the field. It is the worst kind of Monday morning quarterbacking."
Bush charged, "During the last 20 years, in key moments of challenge and decision for America, Senator Kerry has chosen the position of weakness and inaction."
On that score, Bush said in an appeal to Democrats, Kerry is at odds with "the great tradition of the Democratic Party" and some of its greatest presidents.
Addressing Democratic voters specifically, Bush said, "If you believe America should lead with strength and purpose and confidence and resolve, I'd be honored to have your support, and I'm asking for your vote."
From Onalaska, Bush next headed to Richland Center, Wis. He scheduled an afternoon rally in Cuba City, then was heading to Iowa to deliver a speech in Dubuque.
Kerry was holding a rally in Las Vegas this afternoon, then was flying to New Mexico for a rally in Albuquerque.
Vice President Cheney was making three stops in Florida today. Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, started his day in Minneapolis, then was holding events in the Pennsylvania towns of Reading and Wilkes-Barre.
Cheney told a crowd the rural community of Lake City in northern Florida this afternoon that Kerry was only pretending to be a macho hunter when he shot a goose during a hunting trip in Ohio last week.
"He gets an F from the NRA, and now he's just trying to convince us he's just a good ol' boy with a shotgun out to knock down some geese," Cheney told voters, referring to the National Rifle Association, which has endorsed the Bush-Cheney ticket. Many of those attending the rally in the socially conservative community carried "Sportsmen for Bush" signs.
Asked about criticism that his hunting trip was "disingenuous," Kerry said in an interview aired today on NBC's "Today Show" that he has hunted since he was 11 or 12 years old.
"It's the Republicans who are trying to make it something," he said. "They can't stand the idea that a Democrat actually goes out and likes to hunt."
As cooks from a local eatery barbecued pork ribs nearby, Cheney stressed basic GOP themes of national security, gun rights and tax cuts. He described the invasion of Iraq as successful and said President Bush had recognized the "gathering threat and removed the regime of Saddam Hussein."
The vice president lauded the administration's efforts to set up democratic governments in Afghanistan and Iraq, but he made no mention of the growing insurgency in Iraq or the increasingly bloody climate in that country.
Cheney's message was just what Melinda Jones wanted to hear.
"I need a real man as president -- not someone who doesn't have a backbone," said the 32-year-old mother of two.
Earlier in the day, Cheney was introduced at a rally in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County by former New York mayor Ed Koch, a well-known Democrat who told the crowd he would trust Cheney with his life.
"You can depend on him, and you can depend on George Bush," Koch said in a region heavily populated with Jewish and retired voters, many of them New York transplants.
Democrat Al Gore beat Bush in the county by nearly a two-to-one margin in 2000, but that didn't stop Cheney from using one of his standard stump lines: "Looks to me like this is Bush-Cheney country!"
The vice president and his wife, Lynne, entered the Palm Beach County Convention Center to flashing red and blue lights, thumping music and smoke spewed by special effects machines.
Cheney clearly delighted in the embrace of the friendly crowd. At one point, the overwhelmingly white audience -- including senior citizens and schoolchildren -- derided Kerry with such an energetic chorus of "Flip Flop!" that Cheney cautioned, "Don't overdo it."
Marc Piven, 56, an insurance agent from Wellington, Fla., took time off from work to attend the morning rally. "Terrorism is my number one concern -- I'm the father of three girls," said Piven, who moved to Florida 15 years ago from New York and volunteered in 2000 as a poll watcher in the precincts that used the infamous butterfly ballots.
With 27 electoral votes at stake and polls showing a statistical dead heat, Florida is being overrun by the candidates or their surrogates. As Cheney checked out of the posh Boca Raton Resort and Hotel this morning, the staff prepared for the arrival later today of former president Bill Clinton.
In a rally in Minneapolis at the University of Minnesota, Edwards pounced on Cheney's description of Iraq as "a remarkable success story to date when you look at what's been accomplished overall," Washington Post staff writer John Wagner reported. Cheney made the comment at a town hall meeting Monday night in Wilmington, Ohio.
"Iraq is a mess because of two people: George Bush and Dick Cheney," Edwards said. "Eleven hundred American soldiers have lost their lives. More than 8,000 have been wounded. Terrorists are flowing in. Americans are being kidnapped. We've seen beheadings on television. The costs are now $225 billion and counting. And knowing all this, yesterday Dick Cheney could say that Iraq was a remarkable success."
Edwards also continued to hammer Bush for the disappearance of the explosives from a storage facility in Iraq.
"We've heard nothing from George Bush and from the administration except a bunch of excuses," Edwards said.