Vice President Dick Cheney today portrayed Sen. John F. Kerry as a candidate whose policy positions have been inconsistent and who can not be relied upon to follow a clear policy path as president.
His remarks at a rally in a cotton warehouse outside this northern Mississippi Delta town sought, by contrast, to build up what the White House sees as one of President Bush's strongest political assets: a belief among voters that he cannot be swayed from steadfast beliefs.
"The president of the United States must be clear and consistent," said Cheney, whose close-up view of the Oval Office began when he was chief of staff to President Gerald R. Ford 30 years ago. Then, referring to the Democratic presidential candidate, he said: "In all the national campaigns I've watched up close, I've never seen a candidate go back and forth so many times."
He cited what he said were shifting Kerry positions on the war in Iraq and paying for its costs, the education bill known as No Child Left Behind, and the North American Free Trade Agreement, among other issues.
"America faces a choice on Nov. 2 between a strong and steadfast president, and his opponent, who seems to be able to adopt a new position every day," Cheney said.
He cited, as he did a week ago, Kerry's declaration that the war in Iraq was "the wrong war and the wrong place at the wrong time."
That, the vice president said, was precisely what former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont said when he was seeking the Democratic presidential nomination a year ago — and it drew sharp criticism at the time from Kerry.
"In times of great challenge, our troops, our allies and our enemies must know where America stands," the vice president said.
The campaign sought to make two points with the large blue and red sign displayed behind the vice president: It said "racing to victory," an appeal of sorts to the stock-car racing fan in the South, and it declared "Leadership" and "Integrity."
A Republican campaign official presented Cheney's remarks, many of which he has made earlier, as representing an attempt to raise doubts about how strongly Kerry would adhere to the policy positions he is enunciating.
For the message, the Bush campaign chose an impoverished corner of northeastern Arkansas, near the Missouri border and an hour's drive from Memphis, Tenn.
Mississippi County, where Blytheville is situated, gave 56% of its vote four years ago to Al Gore. Bush won 41% of the vote. The county stood out in Arkansas, President Clinton's home state, which supported Bush by a 51% to 46% margin.
But the Blytheville area has been struggling with the aftermath of the closing of the Blytheville Air Force Base in the mid-1990s.
Although steel fabricators have opened operations here, it is largely an agriculture region, reflected in the fields of cotton barely two weeks from harvest, through which Cheney's motorcade passed on the way to the Staplcotn warehouse, in which bales of plastic-wrapped cotton were stacked.
The population of 15,000 has been declining as the jobs have disappeared, a Republican volunteer said. He said Gore's strong showing here was a reflection of the region's economic woes.
But there was one sign of support as Cheney's motorcade neared the warehouse: A plywood sheet greeted him with the message "Welcome Vice President Chaney."