President Bush charged during campaign rallies Friday that Democratic challenger John F. Kerry "can't lead this country" after Kerry challenged the upbeat portrayal of conditions in Iraq offered by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
Kerry and his campaign aides contended that Bush had used Allawi's visit to Washington this week to try to influence the election by putting a positive face on the war in Iraq a week before the first presidential debate. As the partisan crowds booed the Democrat, Bush complained that Kerry had shown disrespect for Allawi, who had appeared with the president in the Rose Garden and addressed a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday.
"This great man came to our country to talk about how he's risking his life for a free Iraq, which helps America, and Senator Kerry held a press conference and questioned Prime Minister Allawi's credibility," Bush said in Janesville as he launched a day-long bus tour through Wisconsin. "You can't lead this country if your ally in Iraq feels like you question his credibility."
At a dusk rally in Racine, in a park on the shore of Lake Michigan, Bush added that "for us to succeed in Iraq, the Iraqi people must believe the American people will stand with them."
"In order to have credibility with those people who are fighting for freedom, the leaders of this country must not send mixed signals," he said. "They must earn the credibility of the Iraqi people."
Despite a rash of kidnappings, beheadings and suicide bombings, Allawi and Bush asserted that news accounts were offering a distorted picture of the conditions in Iraq. They said free elections would be held as scheduled in January, although insurgents control crucial population centers. With Bush at his side, Allawi said that 15 of the country's 18 provinces are ready for elections now, without mentioning that the most populous areas are the most unstable and dangerous.
Kerry, campaigning in Ohio at the time of the Rose Garden appearance, held a news conference to argue that Allawi's description contradicted both his own accounts and U.S. government data. He said that "the prime minister and the president are obviously here to put their best face on the policy."
Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry adviser, told the Los Angeles Times that it would be damaging for Allawi to be seen as a puppet of the United States and that "you can almost see the hand underneath the shirt today moving the lips."
Iraq continued to dominate campaign appearances, statements and advertisements Friday as Bush and Kerry headed off for a weekend of preparations for next Thursday's debate, which will focus on foreign policy. Bush was unusually ebullient during his shirt-sleeved appearances in the Badger State, which he lost by 5,708 votes to Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Bush has comfortable leads in several recent polls here, and Kerry strategists admit that they are in a real fight and could lose the state.
Bush-Cheney communications director Nicolle Devenish said that Kerry had hurt himself with his Allawi comments because he had made "the centerpiece of his campaign his magical ability to bring allies to the table." Now Kerry has chosen to "denigrate one of our most important allies in the war on terror," Devenish said.
Previewing a line that Bush officials are expected to use in television appearances leading up to the debate, Devenish said, "The American people will decide for themselves if they want a commander in chief who trashed our allies or stands strong with our allies." Devenish said Kerry had "come full circle and is now as much an antiwar activist as he is a candidate speaking to the world."
Seeking to banish doubts, Bush said Iraq "has got a strong prime minister, and it's going to have elections in January."
"The message ought to be to the Iraqi people: We support you," Bush said. "The message ought to be loud and clear: We'll stand with you if you do the hard work." Bush said he spoke Friday morning to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is under pressure because of the kidnapping of a Briton in Iraq last week. Bush called Blair "a strong leader" and said he "understands that Iraq is a central front in the war on terror."
Vice President Cheney, who has been closely coordinating his daily criticisms with Bush's themes, used an appearance at a fairgrounds west of St. Louis to deride Kerry's claim that Iraq has become a haven for terrorists. "Senator Kerry's sagging poll numbers have led him to think he's had to go on the attack," said Cheney, who is on a swing through Louisiana, Missouri and Oklahoma, "and he did that once again this morning."
Kerry "assailed the president for suggesting that Iraq was not a home for terrorists before America deposed Saddam [Hussein]," Cheney said. "Ladies and gentlemen, Saddam himself is a terrorist."
Cheney reminded the crowd that Iraq "for years" was listed by the U.S. State Department as a "state sponsor of terror."
Cheney, one of the administration's leading voices in support of the war, returned to his emphasis on the connection between al Qaeda and the Hussein government as he rallies Republicans with a message of fear.
"He [Hussein] provided safe haven for terrorists over the years. He was making $25,000 payments to the families of suicide bombers. And he had a relationship with al Qaeda," Cheney said. The commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks found that there were contacts but no collaboration between Iraq and al Qaeda.
Rein is traveling with Cheney.