Vice President Cheney warned on Tuesday that if John F. Kerry is elected, "the danger is that we'll get hit again" by terrorists, as the Bush campaign escalated a furious assault on the Democratic presidential nominee that has kept Kerry from gaining control of the election debate.
In Des Moines, Cheney went beyond previous restraints to suggest that the country would be more vulnerable to attack under Kerry. "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2nd, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again," the vice president said, "that we'll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States, and that we'll fall back into the pre-9/11 mind-set, if you will, that in fact these terrorist attacks are just criminal acts and that we are not really at war."
In Missouri, meanwhile, President Bush seized on Kerry's statement Monday that Iraq was "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time," noting that Kerry had borrowed the words of his former rival Howard Dean. Kerry "woke up yesterday morning with yet another new position, and this one is not even his own," Bush said to laughter from supporters during a three-city Missouri bus tour. ". . . He even used the same words Howard Dean did, back when he supposedly disagreed with him. No matter how many times Senator Kerry flip-flops, we were right to make America safer by removing Saddam Hussein from power."
The Kerry campaign called Cheney's allegation "un-American" and said Bush would not be able to "distract the American people" from problems in Iraq and with the U.S. economy. But in a tacit acknowledgment that Kerry has had difficulty presenting a convincing critique of Bush, Kerry aides are promising a major new front in Kerry's stepped-up attack on Bush's policies beginning Wednesday: a series of speeches laying out the administration's "miscalculations" in taking the nation to war in Iraq.
Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, interviewed aboard his plane after leaving Ohio, said of Cheney's comments: "What he said was meant to scare voters, period. And it's completely contrary to what's in the best interest of the American people. . . . It was way over the top and I think un-American."
Cheney spokeswoman Anne Womack labeled that comment an "overreaction" and said Cheney "wasn't trying to connect the dots" between a Kerry victory and a terrorist attack. "Whoever is elected in November faces the prospect of another terrorist attack," she said. "The question is whether or not the right policies are in place to best protect our country. That's what the vice president was saying."
Because last week's Republican convention in New York left Bush with a lead in polls, Kerry has sought to turn election topics away from terrorism -- Bush's strongest issue -- and toward the economy and Bush's work on the Iraq war, topics on which the president is more vulnerable. But those efforts by Kerry, including a bid to raise the issue of "outsourcing" of U.S. jobs, have had mixed success because of a combination of Kerry's scattershot themes and the Bush campaign's strategy of parrying Iraq criticism by portraying Kerry as inconsistent.
Democratic partisans have been calling on Kerry to launch more pointed criticism of Bush, which Kerry has done since the GOP convention. But Kerry finds himself in a box on the Iraq war: Because he voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, and has subsequently defended that vote, the Bush campaign has rebutted any criticism of the war by calling it a Kerry "flip-flop." Bush himself used that phrase for the first time in a speech in Lee's Summit, Mo.
While the Bush campaign has focused with a laser's intensity on the subject of terrorism, the Kerry campaign has sought to challenge Bush on multiple themes, often on the same day. On Tuesday, for example, the Kerry side began with a news release criticizing Bush on outsourcing.
"Because of George Bush's wrong choices, we're continuing to ship jobs overseas, jobs that have good wages and benefits," Kerry said during a forum on economic issues in Greensboro, N.C. "That's W: wrong choices, wrong direction -- and it's up to us to make it right."
The Democratic ticket also sent out a statement on health care, quotations from Kerry on the federal deficit and Medicare, new information about a Vietnam War veterans group's attacks on Kerry, and a contention that Republicans have been hypocritical in condemning trial lawyers. The campaign also hosted a conference call to criticize Bush's actions on intelligence gathering.
But Bush's charges that Kerry borrowed Dean's antiwar line soon had the Democrats on the defensive. By late morning, Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer issued a statement saying: "George Bush has made wrong choices in Iraq that have taken us in the wrong direction here at home. Those wrong choices have landed the country in a quagmire, costing us $200 billion and counting."
The Bush campaign, by contrast, quietly contacted reporters covering Kerry to rebut the outsourcing charges, while the president made a trio of appearances criticizing Kerry for vacillating on Iraq. The incumbent kept national and homeland security front and center.
Bush did not address the problems in Iraq: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the unrest that has led to the deaths of 1,000 U.S. troops. (A statement about the 1,000th death was presented in the middle of a Bush campaign speech here.) Instead, Bush emphasized flaws in Kerry's positions on Iraq.
"I think this country wants consistent, principled leadership," he said. "My opponent has now voted for the war and against supplying our troops. When he got on in the Democrat primary, he declared himself the antiwar candidate. More recently, he switched again." Seconds later, Bush derided Kerry's criticism of allies in Iraq as "coerced" and "bribed."
"It's also wrong for my opponent to denigrate the contributions of America's allies, who are standing side by side with our men and women in uniform risking their lives for freedom," he said.
The technique is similar on the economy. Bush did not directly discuss the net loss of about 900,000 jobs during his term, saying instead that "to create more jobs, we must stop the junk lawsuits that threaten small businesses." Bush did not provide details of his plan, instead shifting to criticism of Kerry on the issue. "I understand my opponent changes positions a lot, but for 20 years he's been one of the trial lawyers' most reliable allies in the Senate," he said.
In part, Kerry has been hurt by events beyond his control. The Republican message dominated news coverage last week, with Bush appearing on prime-time television for more than an hour to accept his party's renomination.
While Kerry has resumed a heavy schedule of campaign appearances, he has not conducted a news conference in more than five weeks. Unscripted events often make the news and, in contrast to Bush, play to Kerry's strength as a strong off-the-cuff speaker.
Staff writers Paul Farhi in Greensboro and Vanessa Williams in Chillicothe, Ohio, contributed to this report.