President Bush and Democratic challenger John F. Kerry combed the Midwest for the last few uncommitted voters on Thursday, each carrying severe warnings that his opponent's victory would worsen the security of Americans.
With polls showing no clear advantage for either man and the election just five days away, Bush returned to his accusation that Kerry's words "embolden our enemies" and undermine U.S. troops in Iraq.
"Senator Kerry will say anything to get elected," Bush told 6,000 supporters at a hockey rink here. Playing on Kerry's description of the Iraq conflict as the "wrong war," he added: "The senator's willingness to trade principle for political convenience makes it clear that John Kerry is the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time."
Kerry again jettisoned plans to emphasize domestic issues in a bid to keep the campaign's focus on the disappearance of nearly 400 tons of explosives in Iraq. "The president's shifting explanations and excuses and attacks on me prove, once again, that the president believes the buck stops everywhere but with the president of the United States," he said in Toledo. Kerry also attended a rally in Madison, Wis., that attracted more than 80,000 people, drawn by Bruce Springsteen. A fire marshal said the crowd, near the state Capitol, was the largest to assemble for a single event in the city.
With the approach of the final weekend of campaigning, each candidate's strategy, both geographical and rhetorical, came into sharper focus. Geographically, both men will concentrate almost all their efforts on Florida and on the upper midwestern states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. Among those states, the only surprise is Michigan, which had been expected to be safely Democratic; recent polls have shown a close race. Another surprise is a trip on Sunday by Vice President Cheney to traditionally Democratic Hawaii, where polls show the race to be close.
Kerry has been spending most of his time in Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio and Florida; he will visit Detroit on Saturday, although the campaign is increasingly optimistic about Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
Bush strategist Karl Rove said Thursday night that the campaign's private polls show the president even or ahead in eight of the 10 battleground states -- including Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and New Mexico -- with leads outside the polls' margins of error in four. He predicted a victory for Bush but said "the next five days are critical."
Thematically, both sides remain content to let the campaign's closing days be about matters of national security. Kerry advisers continue to believe that the explosives missing from an Iraqi munitions depot are a metaphor for Bush's mishandling of Iraq. A top Kerry aide said there is evidence that the issue is hurting Bush's standing, although not necessarily lifting Kerry's. And Bush advisers, originally thrown on the defensive by news that nearly 400 tons of powerful explosives had been discovered missing, now say that the dispute, while unhelpful to Bush, keeps the focus on terrorism, which is the president's strongest suit, and away from joblessness and health care, in which Kerry has an advantage.
Bush has responded to Kerry's onslaught about the munitions with a last-minute adjustment in his campaign message. He now devotes the bulk of his speeches to criticism of Kerry -- a sharp change from his pattern through much of the campaign in which his barbs at Kerry were few and lighthearted. And he dropped the word "liberal" from his speeches on Thursday, returning to his original accusation that Kerry is opportunistic and prone to vacillation.
"The issues vary, the challenges are different every day, tactics and strategy must be flexible, but a president's convictions must be steady and true," Bush said on Thursday. Kerry, he said, "has taken a lot of different positions, but he rarely takes a stand."
Bush and his allies on Thursday portrayed Kerry's criticism of Bush on the missing explosives as an insult to U.S. troops. Cheney, in Wisconsin, called the Democrat's charges "a cheap shot" and said: "I believe it says something about the character of the man who would take that kind of shot at the military." Cheney cited an ABC News report that all but three tons of the munitions were gone before American forces invaded. "Kerry is just dead wrong," he said.
Later, after the International Atomic Energy Agency said the report was incorrect, Cheney dropped the "dead wrong" phrase from his criticism of Kerry.
Introducing Bush at a rally in suburban Cleveland, retired Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who presided over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, echoed Cheney's assertion. He said Kerry "denigrates, disrespects our troops" and "cannot lead troops to victory."
But the Republican argument that Kerry was insulting the troops was inadvertently undermined by Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor who has been campaigning for Bush. He appeared to blame the troops explicitly on NBC's "Today Show," saying "the president did what a commander in chief should do, and no matter how you try to blame it on the president, the actual responsibility for it really would be for the troops that were there. Did they search carefully enough, or didn't they search carefully enough?"
The Bush campaign also acknowledged Thursday that it had doctored a photo used in an ad by multiplying the images of troops watching Bush speak. The ad, released on Wednesday, was intended to underscore Bush's commitment to the military.
In Toledo, Kerry contrasted Bush's handling of the explosives situation with John F. Kennedy's response to the Bay of Pigs debacle, the bungled invasion of Cuba in 1961. "When the Bay of Pigs went sour, John Kennedy had the courage to look America in the eye and say, 'I take responsibility, it's my fault,' " said Kerry. "John Kennedy knew how to take responsibility for the mistakes he made, and Mr. President, it's long since time for you to start taking responsibility for the mistakes you made." Kerry adviser Michael McCurry said Kerry was not trying to compare the events in Cuba and Iraq, just the responses.
Concerned about the GOP argument that the Democrats are blaming the troops for the lost munitions, Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, escalated his defense on Thursday, demanding that Bush show that he had ordered the troops to secure the explosives in Iraq. "Our men and women in uniform did their job. It's George Bush, the commander in chief, who didn't do his job," said Edwards, who called on Bush to "step aside."
Both sides are targeting what they see as the typical undecided voter, a person troubled by the Bush presidency but torn over Kerry's ability to do a better job on national security. At rallies in swing states, Kerry and Bush appeal specifically to such individuals mostly by criticizing their opponent and raising the prospects of catastrophe if they do not win.
"The security of our country is at stake," Bush bluntly said on Thursday. Bush said Kerry's "lack of conviction" signals to enemies "that if you make things uncomfortable, if you stir up trouble, John Kerry will back off."
In Toledo, Kerry said Bush has put troops -- and Americans in general -- at greater risk. Kerry said he will fight a "smarter, more effective, more strategic war on terror that will make America safer."
In making these arguments, both candidates have largely scrapped earlier intentions to close the campaign on a positive note. And jobs, health care and social issues have become secondary in the final battles, as have specific policy ideas. In Michigan, Bush acknowledged: "I understand there are some people hurting in Michigan." But the admission was buried deep in his stump speech -- a relief to the Bush campaign on a day when the Labor Department reported an unexpectedly large increase in new claims for unemployment benefits.
Anxious strategists on both sides, digesting inconclusive and sometimes contradictory daily poll results, acknowledge that they have little confidence to predict what will happen on Tuesday.
Kerry's crowds have been generally larger than Bush's, although this may reflect the Bush campaign's more stringent controls on attendance as much as the growing support for Kerry. The Massachusetts senator still plans to shift away from Iraq in the final days to make a broader pitch for a Democratic victory and a leadership change in Washington. But a top aide said Kerry will ride the explosives issue right up until election night if it works.
The candidate's most prominent foray into domestic affairs on Thursday was his donning of an oversized Boston Red Sox cap as he celebrated his hometown team's World Series victory. But Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling said on ABC's "Good Morning America" that he supports Bush -- and the campaign quickly scheduled him to appear with Bush in New Hampshire on Friday.
VandeHei is traveling with Kerry. Staff writers John Wagner, traveling with Edwards, and Lyndsey Layton, traveling with Cheney, contributed to this report.