President Bush, moving to contain an issue clouding the final days of his reelection campaign, today accused John Kerry of denigrating U.S. troops by making "wild charges" about missing explosives in Iraq.
Kerry, appearing in Rochester, Minn., shot back that Bush was ducking questions about the way the administration handled the missing explosives.
"Mr. President, for the sake of our brave men and women in uniform, for the sake of those troops who are in danger because of your wrong decisions, you owe America real answers about what happened, not just political attacks," Kerry said at a rally before 7,500 foot-stamping, whistling supporters who packed an arena in Rochester, Minn.
In his first public remarks on the disappearance of 380 tons of explosives from a bunker near Baghdad, Bush said Kerry was jumping to conclusions about something that might have occurred before the U.S. occupation began.
"The senator is making wild charges about missing explosives when his top foreign policy advisor admits, we don't know the facts," the president told supporters at campaign stops in Pennsylvania and Ohio.
"Think about that," Bush said. "The senator is denigrating the actions of our troops and commanders in the field without knowing the facts. Unfortunately that's part of a pattern of saying anything it takes to get elected."
Bush launched a two-day swing through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, three states that will play a role in determining the outcome of next week's presidential election.
"I'm a proud Republican, but I believe my policies appeal to many Democrats," he said, arguing that his position on such issues as national security, education and family values are closer to the Democratic mainstream than those of his opponent.
Bush was introduced in Ohio by Sen. Zell Miller, the Georgia Democrat who delivered a blistering attack on Kerry during the Republican National Convention, and the president was accompanied by other prominent Democrats. No Republican has been elected president without carrying Ohio.
Bush said military authorities were investigating the possibility that Saddam Hussein's regime removed the explosives from the Al Qaqaa site before coalition troops arrived there in April, 2003.
"This investigation is important and it's ongoing. A political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief," Bush said in Lancaster County, Pa.
Kerry said the responsibility for the missing explosives falls squarely on the president's shoulders, noting that the International Atomic Energy Agency urged the U.S. to secure the facility.
"You didn't put these explosives on the priority list," Kerry said. "You didn't think it was important. You didn't check for them. You didn't give the troops the instructions they needed. You didn't put enough troops on the ground to do that job. You didn't guard the ammunitions dump, and now our troops are at greater risk."
Kerry's advisors indicated that they were not going to drop the issue, saying that it starkly illustrates the Democrat's argument that Bush has made bad decisions and shown poor leadership. They also unveiled a new ad for cable television that charges there is "deepening crisis and chaos in Iraq" and calling for a new commander in chief.
Kerry's sharp remarks came as he made a swing through two Midwestern states, hoping both to shore up support in Minnesota — a state that Democrats had thought was already firmly in Kerry's camp — and gain an edge in Iowa, where both campaigns are engaged in trench warfare.
Hop-scotching from one misty farm landscape to another, Kerry pressed a two-pronged attack: that Bush has failed in foreign policy and neglected the country's domestic needs. He dashed from Sioux City, a region on the western edge of Iowa where Bush had a small edge in 2000, to Cedar Rapids in eastern Iowa, where Al Gore won solidly four years ago.
In Rochester, a city in southeastern Minnesota best known as the home of the famed Mayo Clinic, the candidate was greeted by a raucous crowd that packed every bleacher of a civic center arena.
Earlier, the Massachusetts senator suggested that the HDX and RDX "could very likely be in the hands of terrorists and insurgents, who are actually attacking our forces now 80 times a day on average."
The candidate accused Vice President Dick Cheney of "becoming the chief minister of disinformation" by insisting that the missing explosives are not the administration's fault.
Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, was in Clearwater, Fla., this morning, and he also hit hard on the question of the explosives site.
"Why didn't they secure it? What are they doing about it now?" he asked in a gymnasium at the North Greenwood Recreation and Aquatic Complex. "What are they doing to make sure that those explosives don't get into the hands of terrorists? What are they doing to make sure those explosives are not used against us? Do you want four more years of this?"
The crowd of several hundred supporters burst into a passionate "No!"
"John and I have a clear and unmistakable message," Edwards said. "To the troops, we are with you. To the terrorists, we will hunt you down. And to the American people, we will keep you safe."
Vice President Dick Cheney, who on Tuesday offered the ticket's strongest attack on Kerry's criticism of the handling of the explosives, toughened his words today.
In Washington, Pa., his second stop on a day that began in Kissimmee, Fla., he said Kerry "rushed out to put out a TV ad saying there was a failure to secure these explosives but he has no idea if they were even there to be secured."
Cheney said, "The first obligation of a commander in chief is to support our men and women in combat, which John Kerry failed to do a year ago when he voted against the funding they needed, which he is failing to do now by making accusations without knowing the facts.
"Our troops ought to be praised for the 400,000 tons of weapons and explosives they've captured," the vice president said.
"These brave men and women deserve better than to have their actions called into question by a political candidate who is so ambitious he can't wait for the facts," the vice president said. "John Kerry is playing armchair general and he's not doing a very good job of it."
Times staff writers Maria LaGanga in Florida, James Gerstenzang and Maura Reynolds in Pennsylvania and Mary MacVean in Los Angeles, and the Associated Press contributed to this report.