With a week to go until the election, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry accused President Bush on Tuesday of hiding embarrassments in Iraq, and Bush chastised Kerry for grasping at passing headlines instead of building a coherent proposal.
Bush, appealing to what he called "discerning Democrats" as he rumbled through rural Wisconsin on the last of 20 campaign bus tours, said Kerry projects "weakness and inaction," forsaking his party's tradition of national strength. "My opponent has no plan, no vision -- just a long list of complaints," Bush said in the Mississippi River town of Dubuque, Iowa. "But a Monday-morning quarterback has never won any game."
Kerry, also in Wisconsin, accused Bush for a second day of failing to secure stockpiles of explosives in postwar Iraq and painted a grim and ominous portrait of the Bush presidency. "These explosives . . . could produce bombs powerful enough to demolish entire buildings, blow up airplanes, destroy tanks and kill our troops," Kerry said at an early-morning rally at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.
With Tuesday's clash in Wisconsin -- one of nearly a dozen states where the electoral outcome is unclear -- the candidates approached the last seven days of the campaign with ever-harsher attacks even as their aides planned to close on a positive note. Polls show no clear advantage or momentum for either side, magnifying the importance of each campaign stop and news cycle.
In a new Kerry commercial airing in five states and in his speeches, the Democrat continued to make a case that the disappearance of nearly 400 tons of conventional explosives in Iraq is fresh evidence that Bush has botched the war and now is covering up his miscalculations. And Bush remained determined not to respond to the Democratic charge. Asked by a reporter about who was responsible for the missing munitions, Bush, on a visit to a dairy barn in Viola, Wis., simply glared, journalists with him said.
The White House says that the explosives' disappearance, first reported by the New York Times and CBS News and confirmed Monday by the International Atomic Energy Agency, has been exaggerated by what they describe as the liberal media. Bush's campaign worked aggressively to discredit the report, reflecting the nervousness of aides about a race over which they now have little control and worry could tip on any given story.
Vice President Cheney, speaking at a rally in Pensacola, Fla., said it is "not at all clear those explosives were even at the weapons facility when our troops arrived." He said Kerry does not "mention the 400,000 tons of explosives our troops have captured or destroyed" in Iraq. "Senator Kerry is playing armchair general and is not doing a very good job at it," Cheney said.
On Monday night, the Bush campaign urged reporters to look into an NBC News report that U.S. forces searching the site three weeks into the war found nothing, suggesting that they were moved before Saddam Hussein's government fell. But NBC followed up Tuesday night by reporting that the soldiers were "not actively involved in searching for Iraqi weapons."
White House senior adviser Karl Rove had said the NBC account, heavily covered on Fox News and talk radio, "feeds the belief of a lot of people out in America that the media has a bias."
"Kerry, by so rapidly embracing the story, is going to end up being tarnished by it," Rove said. "What would he do as president? Get up every morning and say, 'I'm going to govern based on what I find in the newspapers?' "
Several Kerry advisers are convinced their candidate's numbers improve every time there is bad news out of Iraq that dominates coverage of the campaign. In a private meeting with a few aides this week, Kerry let it be known he wanted to return to the strategy of blaming Bush for what he considers the mess in Iraq to make sure undecided voters get the message before voting. He is more comfortable citing newspaper reports at the top of speeches as he did the past two days, because he feels it adds credibility to allegations made during the heat of a campaign, aides say.
Kerry said Tuesday that the explosives were evidence of broader problems with Bush's presidency, accusing him of plotting to cover up the missing explosives until after the election, a charge the White House denied. In recent weeks, Kerry also has charged Bush with concealing plans for draft and a secret call-up of reservists and members of the National Guard. He pointed Tuesday to a report in The Washington Post detailing the administration's plans to request $70 billion more to fund military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to suggest a systematic plan to deceive.
"Mr. President, what else are you being silent about?" Kerry said. "What else are you keeping from the American people? How much more will the American people have to pay?"
Many Kerry aides predict victory, but they also express concern about daily tracking polls that show Bush gaining ground in Florida and Ohio. They also fear the great unknown of this campaign: Will the GOP turnout machine, tested in 2000, and tuned up in 2002, exceed expectations next Tuesday?
Kerry visited three states Tuesday he is nervous about losing: Wisconsin, Nevada and New Mexico, each of which has anunemployment rate less than the national average and a large population of rural voters. He is planning a sleepless weekend to hit as many cities as possible in the final 72 hours.
Bush's aides said that they will release his closing ad Wednesday, featuring an emotional clip from the president's speech to the Republican National Convention, as part of an effort to lure back voters who supported Bush after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but have turned on him.
Bush, watched by alert cows and Secret Service agents, stopped by a dairy barn as he wended through Wisconsin, which he lost in 2000 but hopes to pick up this time as part of an upper Midwest cluster of states that includes Minnesota and Iowa. That would provide a cushion if job losses in Ohio wind up putting that pivotal state out of reach.
Reaching out to moderates, Bush, who supports a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, said in an interview aired Tuesday by ABC's "Good Morning America" that he supports civil unions for gay couples "if that's what a state chooses to do."
Bush aides insist that the election will again be decided in Florida, and announced that he will spend Saturday night in Orlando. Bush's travel plans show he is still playing defense in Ohio and New Hampshire, both of which he won in 2000, but he is investing the rest of his time in the next few days trying to wrest states from the Democratic column. Rove said two-thirds of Bush's stops in the final two weeks are in states he lost to Al Gore. In Ohio, Bush will be accompanied by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).
Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), talked up Kerry's character after several weeks of focusing on Bush's shortcomings, saying that the Massachusetts senator "took bullets for this country when he didn't have to."
VandeHei is traveling with Kerry. Staff writers Lyndsey Layton, with Cheney, and John Wagner, with Edwards, contributed to this report.