President Bush leveled his toughest and most comprehensive attack on Democratic challenger John F. Kerry on Wednesday, warning that Kerry "would weaken America and make the world more dangerous" while defending his decision to go to war against Iraq as an unavoidable step to defeat global terrorism.
Pointing toward a Friday night encounter against the Massachusetts senator, the president used his speech here to try to reframe the campaign debate and regain the momentum by putting the onus back on Kerry's record on national security and domestic issues and shifting attention away from questions about why he launched the war against Iraq in the spring of 2003.
Bush ignored the report released on Wednesday showing that Iraq possessed neither stockpiles of biological or chemical weapons nor an active program to produce nuclear weapons at the time of the invasion. Instead, he sharply criticized Kerry as a decades-long opponent of forceful U.S military action who lacks the will to finish the job in Iraq and to destroy al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
"You can't win a war you don't believe in fighting," Bush told supporters at a performing arts center here. "In Iraq, Senator Kerry has a strategy of retreat." The president also charged that Kerry's foreign policy, predicated on multilateralism and a rebuilding of global alliances and institutions, would "paralyze America in dangerous times."
After a contentious debate Tuesday night between Vice President Cheney and Sen. John Edwards, Bush picked up the assault on Kerry's record with sharp and sometimes misleading criticisms designed to reverse the gains Kerry has made since winning the first debate last week in Florida.
The strongly worded speech, which indicted Kerry as a "tax-and-spend liberal," was timed to deflect criticism of Bush's Iraq policy from such key sources as former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. weapons inspector and the State Department. A Bush adviser said the president hopes to change the dynamics of the race with more biting attacks on Kerry's record and trustworthiness and on what Bush charges is Kerry's reluctance to use U.S. military force to defeat terrorism. The strategy is aimed at stoking public fears about terrorism, raising new concerns about Kerry's ability to protect Americans and reinforcing Bush's image as the steady anti-terrorism candidate, aides said.
"Senator Kerry approaches the war with a September the 10th mind-set . . . that any attack will be met with a swift and certain response," Bush said. "That was the mind-set of the 1990s, while al Qaeda was planning the attacks on America. After September the 11th, our object in the war on terror is not to wait for the next attack and respond but to prevent attacks by taking the fight to the enemy."
Throughout the day, Bush warned voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan about Kerry's "weakness" and impulse to "retreat."
Kerry, who spent the day in Colorado preparing for the Friday debate, did not respond to the latest attacks. Instead, his running mate took on that task. At a brief news conference after a speech in West Palm Beach, Fla., Edwards said Bush and Cheney are "in denial" over the state of affairs in Iraq. He chided the administration for not recognizing "what the American people know and see every day: that in spite of the heroic service of our men and women in uniform, Iraq is a mess."
The Kerry campaign launched a new ad accusing Cheney of "not telling the truth" about Iraq in the debate with Edwards and Bush of "desperately attacking" the Democratic ticket.
In his speech here, which was squeezed between the only vice presidential debate and the second presidential debate, Bush cited Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as among those who concur that Iraq is a crucial front in the fight against terrorism. Kerry says the Iraq war was a distraction from the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
"There was a risk -- a real risk -- that Saddam Hussein would pass weapons, or materials, or information to terrorist networks," Bush said. "In the world after September 11, that was a risk we could not afford to take."
Many Republicans and Democrats, including Kerry, shared Bush's concerns before and after the war, but weapons inspectors have since proved that Iraq did not posses the banned weapons to give to terrorists. Bush has been accused of exaggerating the Iraqi threat. Moreover, Kerry has noted, North Korea, Iran and many other nations fit Bush's definition of a "real risk."
The Bush attacks were not new, but were sharper and often more biting. He mocked Kerry for saying that the war is a mistake but insisting that he could still enlist allies to win it; for voting to authorize the war and then voting against an $87 billion bill to help fund it; and for saying he wants to hold a summit to change the dynamics of a war he opposes.
"You hear all that and you can understand why somebody would make a face," Bush said, in a self-deprecating reference to criticism that he scowled during the first debate.
Throughout the speech, Bush assailed Kerry's record of voting against many weapons systems, the 1991 Persian Gulf War and other defense initiatives. "Kerry has looked for every excuse to constrain America's action in the world," Bush said. "He has built a record of weakness."
While Kerry voted against the 1991 Gulf War and many defense bills, he has supported numerous increases in defense spending and voted for multilateral action in Kosovo, Bosnia and Somalia, as well as for the 2002 Iraq war resolution.
Bush reached back to comments from the early 1970s to portray Kerry as someone who would bow to international pressure and require a "global test" before protecting the nation. In doing so, he misrepresented Kerry's stated position: the Democratic nominee has repeatedly said he would consult with but never allow other nations to veto U.S. actions.
With Friday's debate expected to also include domestic issues, Bush escalated his attacks on Kerry's plans for taxes, health care and spending. He portrayed Kerry as a big-government liberal who wants to tax Americans to build a bigger, more intrusive government.
Many of Bush's charges were misleading, including that Kerry would raise taxes on all Americans; Kerry has said he would raise taxes for those making more than $200,000 a year but reduce them for most everyone else, including corporations. Bush also said that Kerry is planning a move toward "Clinton care," a reference to President Bill Clinton's failed attempt to create a health care system with more government funding; Kerry would dramatically expand the federal health care system, but the system would rely mainly on private companies to provide coverage and care. Bush warned of consumers facing limited choices and "rationed care," neither of which Kerry advocates.
Finally, Bush said Kerry would increase spending by $2 trillion or more. "That's a lot of money -- even for a senator from Massachusetts," Bush said, to thunderous applause and laughter, repeating Cheney's exact words from the night before. What he did not mention is that budget experts say the president has proposed even more additional spending, perhaps $3 trillion.
Staff writer Chris Jenkins, traveling with Edwards, contributed to this report.