President Bush, taking his reelection campaign to New Hampshire and Ohio, sought today to turn attention back to his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, as his Democratic opposition continued to batter him on the issue of missing Iraqi explosives.
At a rally in Manchester, N.H., Bush appeared with eight relatives of victims of the attacks and said the families of those who died on Sept. 11 will always be in his thoughts and prayers. He defended the anti-terrorist strategy he said he conceived on that day and asserted that it is "succeeding."
Democratic challenger John F. Kerry, campaigning today in Florida, disputed that claim, saying recent events in Iraq show "the consequences of this president's decision to rush to war without a plan to win the peace." The Massachusetts senator said that in next Tuesday's election, "the safety of the American people is on the ballot."
The candidates spoke against the backdrop of continuing controversy over nearly 380 tons of high explosives that the International Atomic Energy Agency says are missing from a storage area 30 miles south of Baghdad.
The Democrats have seized on the issue to buttress their charges that Bush mismanaged the war, failing to ensure that depots of dangerous weapons and ammunition were secured and not dispatching sufficient troops and equipment to accomplish that task.
In his speech in New Hampshire, Bush told supporters, "All the progress we hope to make depends on the security of our nation. We face enemies who hate our country and would do anything to harm us. I will fight these enemies with every asset of our national power. We will do our duty and we will protect the American people."
Recognizing a couple who lost their son in the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush said, "The September 11th families will always be in our thoughts and always be in our prayers. This nation must never forget their pain. And on the day of that tragedy, I made a decision: America will no longer respond to terrorist murder with half measures and empty threats. We will no longer look away from gathering dangers and simply hope for the best."
Bush declared, "Our strategy to win the war on terror is succeeding. We are shrinking the area where terrorists can operate freely. We have the terrorists on the run. And so long as I am your president, we'll be determined and steadfast, and we will keep the terrorists on the run." In response, the audience cheered and chanted, "Four more years."
Bush's strategists viewed the speech as a chance to recapture the glow that took him to a 90 percent approval rating in polls after the Sept. 11 attacks, but then was lost in the nation's schism over Iraq.
"There is hope beyond the ashes of September the 11th, and nobody can take that away from us," Bush said.
While acknowledging that terrorists "will try to frighten us" and will "test our will by their barbaric tactics," he vowed, "So long as I'm your president, we will not be held captive by fear." Bush ignored the daily setbacks in Iraq, including the missing explosives, and said simply, "Iraq will be free, Iraqis will be secure, and the terrorists will fail."
The president never mentioned Kerry by name or title or even as "my opponent," but he sought to draw a contrast by saying, "It is crucial for the American president to be consistent." Bush added, "I have learned a president must base decisions on principle, core convictions from which he will never waver. The issues vary, the challenges are different every day, the polls go up, the polls go down, but a president's convictions must be consistent and true."
Bush made unabashed political use of some of the most sensitive accounts to emerge after the Sept. 11 hijackings. Using the technique that former president Ronald Reagan pioneered for State of the Union addresses, Bush recognized relatives of victims of the attacks, including David Beamer, the father of Todd Beamer, who led a passenger revolt on American Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.
"Todd Beamer and other passengers on Flight 93 rushed those hijackers and led the first counterattack in the war on terror," Bush said, to applause. "Todd's final words captured the spirit of a nation. He said a prayer, and then he said, 'Let's roll.'" Bush recognized the father, seated behind him, then said, "In terrible sadness, this family has been a model of grace -- their own, and the grace of God."
Others who attended included the father of a firefighter who died at the World Trade Center, the mother of a Port Authority officer killed there and Cheryl McGuinness, the wife of Tom McGuinness, one of the pilots of American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the World Trade Center.
Asked whether Bush was exploiting memories of the terrorist attacks, White House senior adviser Karl Rove said, "The things that make up his experience as president are things that he can legitimately and clearly reflect on."
Sept. 11 "is a defining moment, not just for this presidency but also for our country, and it's a defining moment for our future," said Karen Hughes, Bush's former counselor. "So he wanted to talk about people that influenced him along the way. The story of a presidency is the story of people."
Bush also scheduled appearances today in Portsmouth, N.H., and in Toledo and Columbus, Ohio.
Kerry, addressing a rally in Orlando, attacked Bush's handling of the economy, among other issues.
"At home, George Bush looks at lost jobs, falling wages and rising costs, and he tells struggling middle-class families that everything is just fine," Kerry said. "Well, that's because for the powerful and well-connected friends he's spent the last four years fighting for, it really is the best economy of a lifetime. And now he's asking you to give him another four years so he can keep giving those friends the same old special treatment they've gotten for the last four years."
Kerry said, "Well, that doesn't have to be our future. . . . In four days you can choose a fresh start for America."
He added, "In this election, the safety of the American people is on the ballot. Our troops in Iraq are doing an absolutely heroic job. The problem is our commander in chief is not doing his job."
Kerry was also campaigning today in West Palm Beach, Fla., and Miami. He was accompanied for a second day by rock star Bruce Springsteen, who performed for a large crowd of Kerry supporters yesterday in Wisconsin.
Appearing in La Crosse, Wis., this morning, Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, continued to blame Bush for the missing explosives in Iraq and pounced on the news that the FBI is investigating the Pentagon's awarding of a no-bid contract to Halliburton, a company formerly run by Vice President Cheney, Washington Post staff writer John Wagner reported.
Edwards said the administration's relationship with Halliburton is evidence of its tight relationship with special interests.
"Here at home, they always look out for their powerful friends," he said at a rally at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Edwards pledged that when Kerry is elected president, they would "take off the 'for-sale' sign on the White House and put up a sign that says 'for the American people.'"
The stop was the first of three rallies on Edwards's schedule today, including a stop in North Carolina, where Bush has held a comfortable lead in recent polls. Edwards plans to vote in Raleigh, taking advantage of early voting in his home state. He was being accompanied today by rock star Jon Bon Jovi.
Cheney, meanwhile, kicked off what his campaign called off a "72-hour push" that will take him to 11 states in the next three days, including a last-minute detour to Hawaii Sunday night for a 40-minute rally in Honolulu, Washington Post staff writer Lyndsey Layton reported from Eau Claire, Wis.
The decision to tack on a seven-hour flight to Hawaii, a traditional Democratic stronghold, was made yesterday and underscores a belief by Republicans that they need to pursue any perceived opening in a race that pollsters say is a statistical dead heat. After the 11 p.m. appearance in Honolulu, Cheney will fly all night to Colorado Springs for a Monday morning rally.
"We think we're competitive in the state," said Anne Womack, a Cheney campaign spokeswoman. "You look for your opportunities, and there's clearly an opportunity."
Hawaii, which has four electoral votes at stake, has not been in contention for years. In 2000, Al Gore won the state by 19 percentage points. But recent polls show Kerry and Bush tied, triggering a decision by the Democratic National Committee and two independent liberal groups to buy television ads.
The frenzied travel schedule is unusual for Cheney, who earlier in the campaign preferred to travel for just two or three days at a time before returning home to Washington, D.C.
"Lynne and I have been in 48 states, and yesterday we booked the 49th," Cheney told about 100 GOP activists this morning who gathered at the local party headquarters in Eau Claire to call voters and urge them to vote Republican. "The polls look so good in Hawaii, we're going to drop in Sunday night instead of going to sleep. We're going to go flat out from now until election day."
The Cheneys were joined in Wisconsin by their three granddaughters, Kate, 10, Elizabeth, 6, and Grace, 4, who charmed the crowd and television cameras and were fed cupcakes by campaign volunteers.
At an afternoon rally in Diamondale, Mich., Cheney again accused Kerry of criticizing U.S. troops over the missing Iraqi explosives, ignoring Kerry's repeated assertions that the blame lies with the commander in chief in the White House.
"These brave men and women deserve better than to have their actions called into question by a politician so ambitious, he will say and do anything without waiting for the facts," Cheney said.
Protesters disrupted the hour-long rally three different times with shouts of "stop killing Iraqis!" and "you're a criminal!" Each time, the protester was surrounded by members of the crowd who chanted, "four more years!" before the person was escorted from the building by a security guard. The first time it happened, the crowd started yelling at the Kerry supporter and pressed in towards her, prompting Cheney to stop his standard stump speech and tell the audience to "treat her with kindness."
Jack Netus, 59, a flooring manufacturer who supports the Bush-Cheney ticket, said, "I like the idea of staying the course in Iraq and being steadfast and supporting our troops."
But Rick Nelson stood apart in the crowd. The 48-year-old college professor said he is voting for Kerry and went to the rally to hear what Cheney had to say. He took issue with the way Cheney characterized the invasion of Afghanistan as a success. "From what I understand the Taliban are still controlling parts of the country," he said. And he was especially critical of Cheney's declaration that four Bush tax cuts have put more money in the hands of working people. "Tax cuts skewed to the wealthy are not the right kind," he said.
Allen, traveling with Bush, reported from New Hampshire.