President Bush charged on Friday that Saddam Hussein would still be ruling Iraq if John F. Kerry's view had prevailed, as the Bush campaign continued to press its case that Americans should not trust the Democratic presidential nominee to keep them safe.
Campaigning with a disaffected Democrat, Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.), at his side, Bush took a bus tour from West Virginia to southern Ohio, raising doubts at every stop about Kerry's ability to protect Americans.
"If he had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power and would still be a threat to the security and to the world," Bush said. Kerry, who voted to authorize force in Iraq but now calls it the "wrong war" and has had difficulty clarifying his view, has "more different positions than all his colleagues in the Senate combined," Bush added.
Bush's message was seconded by Miller, the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention. Miller told the crowd in Huntington, W.Va., that the country is in an "hour of danger" and said: "There's but one man I trust to keep my family safe." In an apparent allusion to Kerry, Miller said Bush is "never wavering, never wobbling, never weak in the knees."
The new challenge to Kerry on national security came even as Vice President Cheney softened his warning that the nation would be more vulnerable to a terrorist attack if Kerry became president. Cheney, saying he wished to "clean up" the impression he left on Tuesday, did not retract the statement but said its meaning was misunderstood.
"I did not say if Kerry is elected we will be hit by a terrorist attack," he said in an interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer published on Friday. "Whoever is elected president has to anticipate more attacks. My point was, the question before us is: Will we have the most effective policy in place to deal with that threat? George Bush will pursue a more effective policy than John Kerry."
Bush and Miller -- who, judging from crowd reactions here, has become the GOP's favorite Democrat -- echoed that theme at each stop Friday, as they rode aboard a bus painted with the words "A Safer World, A More Hopeful America."
"I wish my party had the same will to win this fight that this good president does," Miller said. Bush, his sleeves rolled up on an open-collar blue dress shirt nearly identical to Miller's, threw his arm around the Georgian after Miller introduced him in West Virginia.
Five times in his speech in West Virginia, Bush spoke of making the country and the world "safer." He told members of the audience to bring their friends to the polls and "remind them, if they want a safer America, a stronger America and a better America, put Dick Cheney and me back in there for four more years."
Even at a two-minute stop at the courthouse in little Ironton, Ohio, Bush told those gathered to give him the key to the city: "We've got plans to make this world a safer place."
There seems to be only upside for Bush in presenting himself as the better candidate in the fight against terrorists. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, Bush led Kerry on the issue by 22 percentage points -- his greatest advantage on an issue.
Yet Bush has not left the impression that Americans will be entirely safe under his leadership. In the poll, 73 percent were concerned that the country could face major terrorist attacks, a number that has changed little over the past three years.
"People believe they will be safer under Bush," said Andrew Kohut, who directs polling at the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. "I do not think this translates into the expectation that there will not be another attack."
Friday was the first time Bush made the accusation that Hussein would still be in power if Kerry's view had prevailed, although Cheney has said it several times. Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer did not directly rebut Bush's allegation but said: "Dick Cheney crossed the line earlier this week, so it's no shock that George Bush is following his lead."
Touring a part of Appalachia with higher-than-average unemployment, Bush made some nods to domestic matters. In Portsmouth, Ohio, he acknowledged that recent gains in employment are not necessarily comforting to the jobless here. Citing the national 5.4 percent unemployment rate, Bush said: "That statistic doesn't help some of the working people here in Ohio; I understand that. I know that parts of your great state have lagged behind the rest of the nation in recovery."
Bush was indeed traveling through some depressed areas. Ross County, which includes Chillicothe, had an unemployment rate of 7.8 percent in July. Scioto, the county around Portsmouth, had an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent. The Kerry campaign noted that the last candidate to visit Portsmouth was Herbert Hoover in 1932.
In Portsmouth, Bush drew his biggest applause for a vow to pursue conservative social values.
"We stand for a culture of life in which every person matters, every being counts," Bush said as the audience stood to applaud the abortion reference and then celebrated his opposition to same-sex marriage and his support of gun ownership. "We stand for marriage and family, which are the foundations of society. We stand for the Second Amendment."
Cheney, on a bus swing through the Republican-friendly corners of eastern Wisconsin, stopped at a diner in Green Bay and told supporters that Kerry "can't make up his mind" about how he would have dealt with the terrorist threat from Hussein. In Sheboygan Falls, a farming area just east of Lake Michigan, Cheney sought to raise more doubts about Kerry's ability to fight terrorism.
"In terms of their approach to this basic fundamental question of international security and how you prosecute the war on terror, we know what George Bush will do because he's done it for the last three years," Cheney said. "It's hard to know what John Kerry would do."
Cheney also charged that Kerry's dour assessment of the economy is overstated. As he viewed sausages rolling off a conveyer belt at a bratwurst factory in Sheboygan Falls, factory executives told Cheney of plans to build a new corporate office and invest millions in new technology.
Cheney called the country's job picture "very bright" and said: "I've heard John Kerry say this is the worst economy since the Great Depression. Lynne [Cheney] says he's spending too much time windsurfing."
Cheney was asked about opponents' charge that Iraq was invaded to secure oil. "Anybody who would suggest we'd be there for the oil doesn't understand the basic, fundamental decision the president had to make," he said. "If we were interested in oil we would be in Saudi Arabia. We pulled most of our forces out of Saudi Arabia."
Democrats continued to decry Cheney for his remarks about terrorism on Tuesday even after he softened them. Singer, the Kerry spokesman, called the clarification "an example of the way that Dick Cheney operates" and said, "He is willing to say or do anything."
On Tuesday, Cheney told an audience: "It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again, 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're not really at war."
Rein is traveling with Cheney.