President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry delivered impassioned appeals to the dwindling legion of undecided voters on Friday, with Bush stressing the resoluteness he says carried the country through tumultuous times, and with Kerry arguing that Americans should "wake up" and choose a fresh start.
With tensions rising and polls tight, the two candidates rushed through key battlegrounds east of the Mississippi, setting aside their dispute over missing weapons in Iraq to offer more philosophical arguments for their election.
"I would like to give you as plainly as I can a summary of my case on how, together, we can change America -- and I believe we begin by moving our economy, our government and our society back in line with our best values," Kerry said at a morning rally at a civic center here. "We have the opportunity to make sure the American dream touches every heart."
Campaigning in Manchester, N.H. -- in a state that helped propel Kerry to the Democratic nomination 10 months ago -- Bush made a pitch that was also emotional and less ideological than some recent speeches. "The issues vary. The challenges are different every day. The polls go up. The polls go down. But a president's convictions must be consistent and true," said Bush, surrounded by relatives of those who died on Sept. 11, 2001. "There is," he added, "hope beyond the ashes of September the 11th, and nobody can take that away from us."
Both candidates tweaked their speeches, schedules and electoral strategies for the final weekend of a close, expensive and negative campaign. With polls in nearly a dozen battleground states showing races too close to call and likely to hinge on voter turnout, the two candidates planned three days of crossing paths and swords in Wisconsin, Iowa, Florida, Michigan and Ohio. They also launched long-shot bids for states once considered uncompetitive. Vice President Cheney was dispatched to Hawaii, a Democratic stronghold, and former president Bill Clinton to Republican-leaning Arkansas, though neither side expects an upset in either state.
There are no clear indications of which way the election is breaking, strategists from both parties say. National polls show a tie, though Bush does not top 50 percent in most surveys, which historically spells trouble for the incumbent. At the same time, Kerry has remained frozen below 50 percent and trails Bush when it comes to whom voters trust on terrorism, Iraq, and providing strong and steady leadership.
"No one can afford to stand on the sidelines or sit this one out," Kerry said in Orlando. To stir excitement among voters, Bush took California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to a rally in Ohio, and rocker Bruce Springsteen headlined a late-evening event for Kerry in Miami.
The day's electioneering was punctuated by the dramatic airing of a new tape from Osama bin Laden.
The president campaigned against a headwind of untimely news: the controversy over missing weapons, an FBI probe of Halliburton contracts, a doctored campaign ad, reports of longer stays in Iraq for U.S. troops, and an impending request for $70 billion more to fund the operation there. Yet it's not clear Kerry is benefiting, strategists from both parties say.
Bush and Kerry left it to the vice presidential candidates to fight it out over Halliburton and the missing weapons in Iraq. Cheney, campaigning in Dimondale, Mich., seized on comments by an Army commander that his unit removed 250 tons of ammunition from the Qaqaa weapons depot in April 2003 and destroyed it. Cheney said this proves Kerry has been twisting the truth over the past week by accusing Bush of failing to secure explosives. "These brave men and women deserve better than to have their actions called into question by a politician so ambitious he will say or do anything without waiting for the facts," Cheney said.
But a growing amount of evidence this week has suggested that, despite administration statements, at least some of the material was taken after Baghdad fell in April 2003. Kerry said that looting was an example of administration incompetence.
Protesters disrupted the hour-long Cheney rally three times with shouts of "Stop killing Iraqis" and "You're a criminal." At one point, the Republican crowd pressed in toward one female protester, triggering Cheney to stop his speech and caution, "Treat her with kindness." Three groups of protesters disrupted a Bush event in New Hampshire. Similar scenes of anger and passion are playing out at events and polling places across the country and are likely to continue until Election Day.
At stops in Michigan and Wisconsin, vice presidential challenger John Edwards pounced on a new report that the FBI is investigating the Pentagon's award of no-bid contracts to a subsidiary of Halliburton, the oil services company once run by Cheney. In Muskegon, Mich., Edwards called the contract award the "latest example of a long pattern" of favoring special interests. Edwards finished the day with a nighttime rally in his home state of North Carolina -- a long shot for Democrats.
In New Hampshire, Bush returned to terrorism, the issue that shaped his presidency and reelection strategy. "We are shrinking the area where terrorists can operate freely," he said. "We have the terrorists on the run. And so long as I am your president, we'll be determined and steadfast, and we will keep the terrorists on the run."
Bush also made political use of some of the most sensitive accounts to emerge after the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings. Using the technique President Ronald Reagan pioneered for State of the Union addresses, Bush recognized relatives of victims of the attacks, including David Beamer, father of Todd Beamer, who led a passenger revolt on American Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania.
"Todd Beamer and other passengers on Flight 93 rushed those hijackers and led the first counterattack in the war on terror," Bush said, to applause. "Todd's final words captured the spirit of a nation. He said a prayer, and then he said, 'Let's roll.' " Bush recognized the father, seated behind him, then said, "In terrible sadness, this family has been a model of grace -- their own, and the grace of God."
Karl Rove, White House political strategist, dismissed suggestions Bush was exploiting tragedy for political gain. "The things that make up his experience as president are things that he can legitimately and clearly reflect on," Rove said.
In Orlando, Kerry implored, "Wake up, America, wake up . . . you have a choice," in a speech spelling out what he called the clear choice Americans face Tuesday.
Repeatedly telling voters they "can choose a fresh start," Kerry assailed the president's record on domestic issues and foreign policy, especially on Iraq. "By now it's clear that no matter who tells him, no matter how many times he hears it and no matter how bad things get, George W. Bush just does not understand the problems facing America," Kerry said.
"Our choice really could not be clearer, and the stakes could not be higher."
Bush reverted to attack mode at his later events, criticizing Kerry by name 11 times in Portsmouth, N.H., and nine times in Toledo, Ohio. Firing back for Kerry's wake-up call, Bush said: "Well, the American people are awake. Their eyes are wide open. They are seeing more clearly every day the critical choices in this election."
Bush appeared at an evening event in Columbus, Ohio, with Schwarzenegger, who received much more sustained applause than the president did.
"I'm here to pump you up to reelect President George W. Bush," the governor said. "Now is the time for you to flex your muscles for bold leadership."
Bush, recycling a riff he has used three times before when he has appeared with Schwarzenegger, said he has a lot in common with the former bodybuilder. "We both married well," he said. "We both have trouble speaking the English language. We both got big biceps. Well, two out of three ain't bad."