Sen. John F. Kerry, under pressure from Democratic leaders to draw sharper contrasts between himself and George W. Bush, launched a series of blistering attacks on the president Monday, saying the W in his opponent's name stands for "wrong . . . wrong choices, wrong priorities, wrong direction for our country."
On a busy Labor Day dash across the swing states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, Kerry assailed the president's economic policies and paid special attention to the war in Iraq, calling it "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." He said he aimed to withdraw U.S. troops from the country during his first term.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney fired back from the campaign trail. Bush said Kerry had taken "yet another new position" on the war.
"When it comes to diplomacy, it looks to me like John Kerry should stick to windsurfing," said Cheney, who was in Clear Lake, Iowa.
During a morning "front porch" meeting in this middle-class suburb of Pittsburgh, Kerry told supporters, "I would not have done just one thing differently than the president on Iraq, I would have done everything differently than the president on Iraq. I said this from the beginning of the debate to the walk up to the war. I said, 'Mr. President, don't rush to war, take the time to build a legitimate coalition and have a plan to win the peace.' "
Later, addressing a crowd at a picnic in Racine, W.Va., Kerry devoted almost his entire 27-minute address to a critique of Bush. On a day when seven U.S. servicemen were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Iraq, Kerry termed the war in Iraq "catastrophic." Still later, he referred to it in a statement as "a quagmire," a word often applied to the U.S. conflict in Vietnam. He also blasted the president's record on job creation, health care, energy independence and education.
In total, the day seemed to signal a sharper, more combative positioning for Kerry. Campaign aides, as well as former president Bill Clinton, have been urging him in recent days to be more critical of Bush, who has opened up a double-digit lead in polls taken during and after last week's Republican National Convention. It also followed a weekend of staff changes. Longtime ally and adviser John Sasso, a respected campaign operative from Boston, on Monday joined the traveling operation for the remainder of the campaign.
Democrats are deeply concerned that the party's standard-bearer has allowed himself to be defined by the Bush campaign and has not presented a clear, concise message on how he differs from the president.
To that end, Kerry throughout the day repeated variations on the phrase, "W stands for wrong: wrong choices, wrong direction" -- which aides said would become a semi-official campaign slogan over the next few weeks.
Some of Kerry's harshest fighting words were reserved for the war in Iraq, which overshadowed the traditional Labor Day emphasis on jobs and the economy. Although Kerry voted to authorize the war -- and said here he would do so again knowing what he knows now -- he nonetheless called the administration's contention that there were coalition forces fighting alongside 125,000 Americans troops "the phoniest thing I've ever heard."
"You've got about 500 troops here, 500 troops there, and it's American troops that are 90 percent of the combat casualties, and it's American taxpayers that are paying 90 percent of the cost of the war," he said. "It's the wrong war, in the wrong place at the wrong time."
At a backyard event in suburban Milwaukee, Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, praised the bravery of U.S. troops but criticized Bush's management of the war in Iraq, noting that a car bombing had killed seven Marines on Monday.
This invited responses from Bush and Cheney. "After voting for the war, but against funding it, after saying he would have voted for the war even knowing everything we know today, my opponent woke up this morning with new campaign advisers and yet another new position," Bush said while campaigning in Missouri, another swing state.
In addition to reminding audiences that the U.S. economy has failed to produce any net new jobs during the Bush administration, Kerry released a campaign-generated economic report that emphasized that the quality of jobs and wages has deteriorated in the past four years.
"If you want health care for all Americans, if you want schools that work, if you want jobs that pay you more money, if you want Social Security that's there for the future, then we need to move America in a new direction," Kerry told the several hundred neighborhood residents who crowded the street in Cannonsburg.
Kerry had to speak above a particularly rowdy group of Bush protesters in Cannonsburg, who shouted "four more years" and "flip-flopper" throughout his remarks. One jeered at the Massachusetts senator -- a multimillionaire since his marriage to ketchup heiress Teresa Heinz -- when Kerry assailed Bush's tax cuts as only benefiting the wealthy.
"He's right; I'm privileged," Kerry responded to the heckler. "My tax burden went down, and I don't think that's right. George W. Bush and I fit into the same category of privilege, but the fact is he and I have a different view. He thinks the wealthiest Americans ought to be rewarded again and I don't. . . . I think the average American deserves the tax break."
At one point, protesters tried to drown out an elderly woman who was straining to have her question to Kerry heard because of 11 surgeries on her throat. "While Bush people were rudely shouting, a 70-year-old woman . . . was telling the story about how she has had to go back to work because she needs to take pills at such a rate that she can't afford to pay for them because of the prescription drug costs," Kerry said. He pledged to lower the cost of prescription drugs, by allowing seniors to import drugs from Canada, and by offering Medicare an opportunity to purchase drugs in bulk to reduce costs.
Kerry ventured into friendly territory in Racine, a tiny town in the heart of coal-mining country about 25 miles south of Charleston, the state capital. The event was an annual picnic sponsored by the United Mine Workers of America, whose former president, AFL-CIO secretary Richard L. Trumka, warmed up about 1,500 supporters by saying, "When it comes to trade, George Bush talks like John Wayne, but he acts like Winnie the Pooh."
Lois Romano reported from Cannonsburg, Farhi from Racine and Cleveland. Staff writers Vanessa Williams and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.