The Republican attack on John F. Kerry over terrorism and Iraq escalated Thursday, led by Vice President Cheney, who mocked the Democratic nominee for saying he would wage a more sensitive war on terrorism and accused him of seeing the world as if the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, never took place.
Cheney's remarks, which came in a speech in Dayton, Ohio, marked the continuation of an assault on the Massachusetts senator that was initiated by President Bush on Tuesday. With some polls showing that after his national convention, Kerry gained ground from Bush on who is better able to wage a war on terrorism and serve as commander in chief, Bush and Cheney have seized on several recent Kerry statements to question his fitness to lead the nation during wartime.
Cheney picked up on a comment by Kerry last week in which he said he would fight a "more sensitive" war on terrorism. "America has been in too many wars for any of our wishes, but not a one of them was won by being sensitive," Cheney said in Dayton. "President Lincoln and General Grant did not wage sensitive warfare -- nor did President Roosevelt, nor Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur. A 'sensitive war' will not destroy the evil men who killed 3,000 Americans and who seek the chemical, nuclear and biological weapons to kill hundreds of thousands more."
Cheney went on to question whether Kerry's worldview had been reshaped by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as Bush regularly tells his audiences the attacks did for him. "I listened to what Senator Kerry had to say in Boston, and, with all due respect to the senator, he views the world as if we had never been attacked on September 11th," Cheney said. "The job of the commander in chief, as he sees it, is to use America's military strength to respond to attacks. But September 11th showed us, as surely as anything can, that we must act against gathering dangers -- not wait for to be attacked."
Kerry advisers quickly fired back at Cheney and the president, seeking to prevent the Republicans from keeping the Democratic nominee on the defensive. Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, speaking for the campaign, called Cheney's comments "outrageous" and said the Republican ticket was attempting to divert attention from what he said was a record of incompetence and ineffectiveness in the war on terrorism.
"As they've seen polls and seen the rising respect people have for John Kerry, they're more determined than ever to run a personal attack campaign," Clark said in a telephone interview. "They don't have a good record to defend, and so they've fallen back on personal attacks. It's the lowest form of politics."
Retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak, another Kerry supporter, contrasted Kerry's service in Vietnam with Bush's service in the Texas National Guard and Cheney's lack of military service. "Do the president and vice president really want to have a debate about who is more suited to fight the war in Iraq and the war on terror?" he said in a statement. "Do they really want a debate about which candidate has the toughness to make America stronger?"
In sign of the Kerry campaign's determination to rebut the criticism, it also issued a statement signed by 10 former senior military officials, including McPeak and Clark, denouncing Cheney's attacks as "gutter" politics.
As Cheney bore in on Kerry, Bush campaigned in Nevada, where he sought to deflect criticism over his decision to approve the storage of nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain -- an action that threatens his chances of winning the state -- by trying to criticize Kerry's record on the issue.
But in an interview on CNN's "Larry King Live" taped after his arrival in California, the president joined with Cheney in keeping the heat on Kerry over national security issues. Bush argued that Kerry's statement about significantly reducing U.S. forces during the first year of a new administration sent the wrong signal to both friend and foe in Iraq. "That says to the enemy: Wait for six months and one day," he said on CNN. "Or it says to the Iraqis: The Americans aren't serious. And it's very important for us not to be setting timetables."
Kerry advisers said the Democratic nominee has set troop reduction in his first year as a goal but that conditions on the ground in Iraq would determine the pace of any withdrawal.
Asked about independent ads questioning Kerry's service in Vietnam, Bush said he had not seen them. He then added: "Senator Kerry is justifiably proud of his record in Vietnam, and he should be. The question is: Who can best lead the country in a time of war? That's really what the debate ought to be about. And I think it's me. Because I understand the stakes."
Vulnerable over the continued instability in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, Bush and Cheney have repeatedly sought to portray Kerry as alternately weak, naive and inconsistent in his views about the war on terrorism. On Thursday, Cheney criticized Kerry for suggesting that the administration's policies had helped to create a climate that is breeding more terrorists.
"He has even said that by using our strength, we are creating terrorists and placing ourselves in greater danger," Cheney said. "But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the world we are living in works. Terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength; they are invited by the perception of weakness."
While Cheney stayed on the offensive against Kerry, Bush had spend part of his day playing defense in Nevada over the nuclear waste issue. Gov. Kenny Guinn (R) and other politicians in both parties oppose the president's decision to approve Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository.
Bush said in 2000 that he would oppose the Yucca Mountain site unless it met scientific tests for safety and the environment, but he later approved it on the recommendation of the Energy Department. He said Thursday he had made his decision based on scientific information -- although Guinn said after Bush's appearance that science is on the side of the opponents of Yucca. But Bush also said he would accept a decision by the courts or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission overturning his decision.
Bush then charged Kerry with trying to turn the issue into "a political poker chip," accusing his opponent of having been on both sides of the issue. "He says he's strongly against Yucca here in Nevada," he said at a forum hosted by the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America union. "But he voted for it several times. And so did his running mate. My point to you is that, if they're going to change, one day they may change again."
Kerry, who while campaigning here this week vowed to block the site, voted in 1987 for legislation authorizing a study of the Yucca Mountain site but for the past decade has opposed making it the permanent national site for spent nuclear waste. He voted against the measure in 2002.
Leibovich reported from Dayton.