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Kerry Latches On to Claim of a Bush-Saudi Oil Deal

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Times Staff Writers

Seizing on a claim that the Saudi government told the White House it would try to lower oil prices as the November election approaches, Sen. John F. Kerry on Monday questioned whether President Bush had put politics ahead of America’s economic needs.

Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, cited an assertion in a new book by Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward that Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., Prince Bandar bin Sultan, told Bush that his country hoped to decrease oil prices to help the U.S. economy before election day. “That’s the Saudi pledge,” Woodward said on the CBS’ “60 Minutes” on Sunday.

“If, as Bob Woodward reports, it is true that gas supplies and prices in America are tied to the American election, tied to a secret White House deal, that is outrageous and unacceptable,” Kerry told hundreds of supporters gathered on a lawn outside Palm Beach Community College.

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Bush’s reelection campaign denied there was any such deal.

“It seems Sen. Kerry is more interested in trying to do book reviews about books he hasn’t written and probably not read than he is in getting the facts,” said Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt. “The fact is, there were no secret deals, and his charges and attacks were completely inaccurate.”

The Saudi Embassy did not return calls for comment. But Bandar, in a call to CNN on Monday evening, denied that his comments to Bush about oil prices represented any sort of deal. Bandar said he was reiterating his government’s long-standing policy of maintaining stable oil prices to prevent worldwide economic problems.

Asked by CNN’s Larry King if he wanted Bush reelected, Bandar replied: “We always want any president who is in office to be reelected ... but that is the American choice. This is not our call.”

Kerry used Woodward’s book, “Plan of Attack,” to fuel an argument he has been making on the campaign trail: that Bush’s energy policies have created hardships for average Americans.

“Right now, there are people all over this country who are literally going through their purses and their pocketbooks, looking behind the sofa and under the cushion and under the car, to find the pennies to get the extra money to be able to pay the additional cost of gasoline,” Kerry said.

“It’s my prayer that Americans are not being held hostage to a secret deal between the White House and a Saudi prince,” he added.

Bush was asked by House Democratic leaders to respond himself to the Woodward book. “In effect, Mr. Woodward is alleging that you have an understanding with the Saudis that the Saudis will manipulate gasoline prices for your political advantage,” the letter said.

Kerry on Monday also accused Saudi Arabia of allowing money to flow to terrorist groups, an allegation Saudi leaders have denied.

“We need to end this sweetheart relationship with a bunch of Arab countries that still allow money to move to [militant groups] Hamas and Hezbollah and the Al Aqsa [Martyrs] Brigade,” he told donors at a breakfast reception at a home in Juno Beach, which raised $250,000 for his campaign.

The candidate did not name the Arab countries, but a campaign spokesman said Kerry was referring mainly to Saudi Arabia.

Kerry was joined at the fundraiser and the rally at Palm Beach Community College by Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), a rival earlier this year in the Democratic presidential race and the party’s 2000 vice presidential candidate.

The two repeatedly invoked that year’s contested presidential race, which Democrat Al Gore and Lieberman lost amid controversy about voting irregularities in Florida. In Palm Beach County, where some voters were baffled by so-called butterfly ballots, both promised there would be no repeat of the 2000 problems.

“This time, we’re not chasing butterflies,” Lieberman said at the rally. “We’re going to elect the next Democratic president of the United States, and it’s going to start right here in Palm Beach County, where it ended.”

Lieberman has kept a low profile since ending his presidential bid in early February. On Monday, he displayed his characteristic low-key humor.

“You know, it wasn’t easy for John to get to be the presumptive nominee of our party,” he joked. “He had to defeat some extremely able people.”

Kerry said he was proud to be joined by man who “should have been inaugurated as vice president of the United States.”

“I did work my heart out for him, and for Al Gore,” he said. “I thought they would be the leaders of our generation, but fate and other circumstances -- which we will never allow to be repeated again -- stole that opportunity from us.”

Kerry advisors hope that Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate on a major-party ticket, will help the 2004 Democratic ticket carry Florida. Lieberman remains popular in Florida, home to a large Jewish community.

Also Monday, Kerry’s campaign announced that its first advertisement was airing in California as part of an effort to drum up donations.

Campaign officials said the new ad was appearing only in Marin, Napa and San Mateo counties and not in the expensive Los Angeles market.

The ad, titled “Choice,” focuses on abortion rights. “The Supreme Court is just one vote away from outlawing a woman’s right to choose,” a narrator says, referring to the close division on the court over abortion rights. “George Bush will appoint anti-choice, anti-privacy justices. But you can stop him.”

The ad closes with a pitch for viewers to “log on, call, contribute for a new direction.”

The campaign also began running two other spots critical of Bush in Wisconsin, New York, New Jersey and Washington state.

The Bush campaign, in response to the ads, noted that Kerry in 1987 was among the senators giving unanimous approval to Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court appointment. Scalia is widely viewed as a leader of the court’s conservative wing.


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