Entering the homestretch of his reelection campaign, President Bush unleashed a lengthy and intense attack today on Sen. John F. Kerry, warning that his rival's policies would raise the danger of new terrorist attacks in the United States.
The charge — the president's most blistering to date — was based largely on selective citations of Kerry's comments and legislative record and appeared to signal a "no-holds-barred" approach during the campaign's final stage.
"While America does the hard work of fighting terror and spreading freedom, he has chosen the easy path of protest and defeatism," Bush told several hundred supporters in this Philadelphia suburb in southern New Jersey.
"Giving up the fight might seem easier in the short run, but we learned on Sept. 11th that if violence and fanaticism are not opposed at their source, they will find us where we live."
In particular, Bush suggested that Kerry learned nothing from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and that he wants to move the country backward to a time when "danger was growing and we didn't know it."
"His September the 10th approach is no way to protect the country," Bush said to cheers and jeers from the rowdy crowd in a community recreation center.
Campaigning earlier in the day in Florida, Kerry tried to preempt the president's expected attack by lambasting what he called the president's "arrogant" approach to the war in Iraq.
"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 come out and it's beginning to catch up with him," Kerry told hundreds of seniors assembled in a parking lot of a West Palm Beach retirement community. "And on Nov. 2, it will catch up with him."
Both candidates' focus on Iraq today demonstrated that the war has become the campaign's dominant debate. And for Bush in particular, it's the one issue on which polls suggest he enjoys a clear advantage over Kerry.
In a diatribe against Kerry that lasted nearly an hour and referred repeatedly to the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush took quotations from Kerry out of context to try to portray him as advocating retreat in Iraq and "giving up" the fight against terrorism.
"My opponent has a fundamental misunderstanding of the war on terror," Bush said. "A reporter recently asked Sen. Kerry how Sept. 11th changed him. He replied, 'It didn't change me much at all.' His unchanged world view is obvious from the policies he still advocates."
Kerry's comments in an interview with the New York Times referred to the fact that he had written about the dangers of non-state threats before the Sept. 11 attacks and advocated policies to combat them.
Kerry aides said the president's attack was over the top and could backfire.
"Seriously, this speech is so full of illogical assertions and misleading attacks that the real story here is the degree to which Bush is going over the top, stretching the truth," said Kerry spokesman Phil Singer.
Throughout the speech, Bush painted Kerry as a kind of virtual incumbent, associating him with policies in the 1990s he derided as "piecemeal and symbolic." Bush did not acknowledge that he took office nine months before the Sept. 11 attacks.
"By not seeing the war, our government had no comprehensive strategy to fight it," Bush said. "September 11th changed all that. We realized that the apparent security of the 1990s was an illusion."
Bush used his speech in part to respond to some of Kerry's previous charges, including that the war in Iraq had been a "diversion" from the larger fight against terrorism.
Senator Kerry believes that fighting Zarqawi and other terrorists in Iraq is a 'diversion' from the war on terror," Bush said. "I believe that fighting and defeating these killers in Iraq is a central commitment in the war on terror. If Zarqawi and his associates were not busy fighting American forces in Iraq, does Senator Kerry think they would be leading productive and peaceful lives? Clearly these killers would be plotting and acting to murder innocent civilians in free nations including our own."
Bush derided Kerry as opposing preemptive strikes on terrorist organizations. In fact, Kerry has explicitly endorsed using preemptive attacks when the country is under threat.
"He has complained that my administration, quote, "relies unwisely on the threat of military preemption against terrorist organizations," Bush said. "Let me repeat that: He says that preemptive action is unwise not only against regimes but even against terrorist organizations. Senator Kerry's approach would permit a response only after America is hit."
Kerry's original quote, from an opinion article in March 2003, argued for tougher efforts to find and destroy terrorist organizations, saying the threat of preemption was inadequate on its own: "It is troubling that this administration's approach to the menace of loose nuclear materials is long on rhetoric but short on execution. It relies unwisely on the threat of military preemption against terrorist organizations, which can be defeated if they are found but will not be deterred by our military might."
For his part, Kerry argued that it is Bush who has proven to be the risky prospect for president. Standing coatless on a stage set up outside the bungalows of Century Village under the hot Florida sun, the Democrat directly addressed his rival in challenging tones.
"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, not more secure," he said. "And we need a president who know how to make America secure."
After dramatically scaling back his references to his time in Vietnam during the last two months, Kerry peppered his 30-minute speech with at least a half-dozen references to his military service, returning to a theme many Democrats said he relied on too heavily during the spring and summer.
"I'll never send our soldiers into harm's way without the equipment that they need, because I've been one of those soldiers and I know what that means," he said. "And 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."
Kerry ticked off a list of military commanders, administration officials and lawmakers who have acknowledged problems with the rationale for the invasion of Iraq and the handling of the postwar period.
"You know what this administration does?" he asked. "It rewards the people who make the mistakes, who miscalculate. It rewards the people who hide the truth and it fires the people who tell the truth."
The Massachusetts senator also alluded to a recent report that a squad of reservists in Iraq refused an order to transport fuel because of failing equipment and a lack of security.
"Now we see troops struggling with the problem of being worried to go out on a patrol when they know they don't have the equipment that they need, they know they don't have the people with them that they need," Kerry said. "Let me tell you something that I learned when I fought in Vietnam: listen to the troops and give the troops the equipment that they need."
Kerry warned that in Bush's speech, the president would "mislead America again about my record on defense and security."
"I've spent 20 years in the United States Senate, and I'm proud that I have voted for or supported the largest defense budgets in the history of the United States of America," he said. "I have voted for every single weapon system that we've used in Iraq, that we've used in order to be able to be the strongest military in the world.
"I defended our country as a young man, I've bled for our country as young man, and I will defend our country as president of the United States of America," he added.
On the second day of his swing through Florida, the Democrat also urged residents to cast their ballots at early voting precincts that opened around the state today.
"This is important," he said. "If you vote early now, we don't have to stay up late on Tuesday night, Nov. 2. I want you to get out and get the job done."
Kerry was scheduled to deliver a speech in Tampa this afternoon and later hold a rally in Orlando.
Bush was to travel to Florida late today to attend a Republican Party fundraiser in St. Pete Beach. He planned a full day of campaigning across Florida on Tuesday.
The choice of New Jersey as the location for Bush's new speech was deliberate. Bush campaign aides have hinted for weeks that they believe they have a chance of winning New Jersey, traditionally a diehard Democratic state.
A statewide poll released over the weekend showed the race in a dead heat in New Jersey — 46% to 46% — among likely voters. The poll, by Fairleigh Dickinson, had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.
But Kerry spokesman Singer said the visit by Bush to New Jersey was "a feint" because Marlton is only about 12 miles from Philadelphia and is part of that city's TV market. It is a common tactic for campaigns nearing the end to try to force their opponents to spend time and money defending presumably "safe" territory.
"It's a ploy to try to give the idea that they are going to New Jersey when they are really making a play for the Philadelphia media market," Singer said. "Our polls show that we are winning in New Jersey."
Reynolds reported from Marlton, N.J. and Gold reported from West Palm Beach, Fla.