President Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry lunged into the final two weeks of the 2004 presidential campaign on Monday by feuding feverishly over the Iraq war and the fight against terrorists.
Here in the Philadelphia suburbs, the president jettisoned all talk of domestic affairs as he assembled a barrage of new and old attacks on Kerry's record on terrorism, using numerous and sometimes suspect accusations to describe Kerry as eager to return to a "September the 10th attitude" in which the country did not effectively fight terrorists. In Florida, Kerry overshadowed his planned focus on health care by describing Bush's handling of Iraq as "arrogant" and "cavalier," and he suggested Bush was guilty of ideologically driven mismanagement.
The long-distance exchange of insults gave an overheated tone to a political contest that was already tense and unrelenting. On the day early voting began in Florida, and with 15 days to go until the election, both men discarded fine distinctions as they fought for any advantage in a close race.
With polls showing Bush regaining a small lead after losing ground during the debates, Kerry sought to keep pressure on him by citing a letter from the U.S. commander in Iraq last year complaining that inadequate supplies threatened the troops' ability to fight. The existence of the letter, written in December by Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, was reported in Monday's Washington Post.
"Despite the president's arrogant boasting that he's done everything right in Iraq and that he's made no mistakes, the truth is beginning to catch up with him," Kerry told supporters in West Palm Beach and Tampa. "Mr. President, your management or mismanagement of this war, your diversion from al Qaeda and from Osama bin Laden, your shift of the troops to Iraq when there was nothing to do with al Qaeda, nothing to do with 9/11, has made America less safe."
Kerry added: "I will never be a commander in chief who just cavalierly, ideologically and arrogantly dismisses the advice of our best military commanders in the United States."
Bush aides said Kerry had no standing to complain about a lack of supplies in Iraq because he voted against an $87 billion Iraq spending measure.
Kerry had planned to emphasize health care, but the campaign shifted course after his recent emphasis on domestic issues such as Social Security and the flu vaccine shortage allowed gains by Bush in polls. The campaign issued a new ad asserting that "American troops are attacked 87 times a day" and using a statement by Bush on March 13, 2002, that "I truly am not that concerned" about bin Laden. Bush denied in the final debate that he had made such a remark.
The Bush campaign released a new ad pointing to Kerry's votes against the Persian Gulf War, intelligence spending and weapons programs. "John Kerry and his liberal allies: are they a risk we can afford to take today?" the ad asks.
The president delivered the same message to a rally in New Jersey. Describing the 1990s as a time when efforts against terrorists were "piecemeal and symbolic," Bush said: "That is the time that my opponent wants to go back to -- a time when danger was real and growing, but we didn't know it; a time when some thought terrorism was only 'a nuisance.' But that very attitude is what blinded America to the war being waged against us."
Bush also sought to reverse Kerry's charge that the president has alienated allies. "Senator Kerry has managed to offend or alienate almost every one of America's fighting allies in the war on terror," he said. "He has dismissed the sacrifice of 14 nations that have lost forces in Iraq, calling those nations 'window dressing.' "
Casting Kerry in his 1970s role of antiwar demonstrator, Bush charged: "While America does the hard work of fighting terror and spreading freedom, he has chosen the easy path of protest and defeatism."
In several instances, Bush took liberties in characterizing Kerry's positions. Although Kerry has said he would always reserve the right to use preemptive force, Bush charged that Kerry's position is otherwise, saying: "Senator Kerry's approach would permit a response only after America is hit. This kind of September the 10th attitude is no way to protect our country."
Bush quoted Kerry as saying Sept. 11 "didn't change me much at all." Added Bush: "His unchanged worldview is obvious from the policies he still advocates." But in the interview to which Bush referred, Kerry went on to say the attack "accelerated, confirmed in me, the urgency of doing the things I thought we needed to be doing. . . . It was a kind of anger, a frustration and an urgency that we weren't doing the kinds of things necessary to prevent it and to deal with it."
The president also said that Kerry "spoke with sympathy for a communist dictator in Nicaragua in the 1980s and criticized the democracy movement as terrorism." The Kerry quotation about the Sandinistas on which the Bush campaign based this statement said: "Our foreign policy should represent the democratic values that have made our country great, not subvert those values by funding terrorism to overthrow governments of other countries."
On Iraq, Bush said Kerry has "now flip-flopped his way to a dangerous position: My opponent finally has settled on a strategy, a strategy of retreat. He has talked about artificial timetables to pull our troops out of Iraq." Kerry has said that he would like to reduce troop levels in Iraq "significantly" within six months but that this would depend on the situation there.
Bush said efforts by Kerry to cut intelligence spending in 1994 and 1995 gave him "a record of trying to weaken American intelligence," and he pointed to numerous votes by Kerry against weapons systems. But the Kerry campaign said that Vice President Cheney, as defense secretary, also opposed some of the same weapons programs, and Kerry's proposed intelligence cuts were smaller than those proposed in 1995 by Bush's choice to head the CIA, Porter J. Goss.
Bush's visit to New Jersey, on his way to Florida for an overnight, was somewhat unconventional because Al Gore won the state comfortably in 2000, and a Republican presidential candidate has not won here in 16 years. Although the GOP's hopes to win in New Jersey are slim, Marlton is in the Philadelphia media market, which means Bush's appearance reached electorally important eastern Pennsylvania.
Cheney expressed optimism about the race as he campaigned in West Virginia. Cheney also dismissed Democratic charges that Bush would "privatize" Social Security. "It's an age-old cry," he said. "It's usually a good thing when it happens because it means they are behind."
Like Bush's No. 2, Kerry's vice presidential pick, John Edwards, suggested that Bush's side is the desperate one. Bush, Edwards said, "is making one last stand to con the American people."
In three cities across Florida, Kerry implored voters to take advantage of the state law that allows them to cast a ballot before Nov. 2 . Surveys here show the race to be a dead heat, and Democrats, anticipating voting troubles in part because 1 million new voters have registered, have already filed about 1,000 preemptive lawsuits.
Although preoccupied with Iraq, Kerry continued to try to saddle Bush with the flu-vaccine shortage, accusing him of putting the interest of the drug companies above the needs of consumers by not developing a health plan that allows the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada.
"With senior citizens standing in line for hours and mothers frantic about how to protect their children, the president gave the public his solution -- don't get a flu shot," Kerry said. Bush suggested that healthy Americans skip vaccinations to leave supplies for the young, old or vulnerable.
Romano was traveling with Kerry. Staff writers Michael Laris, with Cheney, and John Wagner, with Edwards, contributed to this report.