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Kerry Says Bush Is ‘Stonewalling’

Times Staff Writer

Democratic presidential challenger Sen. John F. Kerry accused President Bush on Sunday of blocking the investigations into the intelligence failures surrounding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the build-up to the Iraq war, suggesting the administration is trying to duck a politically volatile subject.

Launching a new salvo in his building rivalry with the incumbent Republican president, the Massachusetts senator said he welcomed Bush’s statement Saturday that the president intended to keep talking about the Sept. 11 attacks throughout this year’s campaign.

“Yes, I do too, Mr. President,” Kerry said at a town-hall meeting at a college in Tougaloo, Miss., a small town near Jackson. “I want to talk about it right now. I want to know why you’ve been stonewalling the commission that’s trying to get the answers to what happened. I want to know why the United States has to live with a lack of knowledge about what happened in its intelligence failure on weapons of mass destruction.”

In a news conference, Kerry noted that the bipartisan commission Bush created last month to investigate the problems with pre-Iraq war intelligence will not issue a report until 2005, “which just happens coincidentally to not be in an election year.”

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Kerry also said that the work of the federal panel investigating the Sept. 11 attacks has been delayed because of disputes with the Bush administration.

“I think they’re slow-walking it,” Kerry added. “I think they don’t want accountability. They want to get it out of the way as fast as they can so the memory of Americans might be shorter.”

The Bush campaign immediately disputed Kerry’s charge.

“It is absolutely, completely inaccurate,” said campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt. “The president has offered unprecedented cooperation to a commission of this nature.... This is another example of John Kerry launching a false, inaccurate negative attack because he doesn’t want to talk about his record on this issue,” Schmidt added.

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"[Kerry] supported the war in Iraq, but when he felt the political pressure in the Democratic primary, he declared himself an antiwar candidate and voted against the $87-billion supplemental bill that our troops needed.”

Kerry’s latest challenge to Bush speaks to the increasing frequency with which the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are being invoked as the campaign heads into the general election contest. Last week, the president began running television commercials that feature images from the World Trade Center, a move that was denounced as insensitive by some victims’ families and firefighters.

Some of those who objected to the ads have complained in the past that the administration is not cooperating fully with the Sept. 11 commission, which has had protracted negotiations with the White House about access to information.

“We deserve a president who’s willing to stand up for security before his own interests, and we ought to get those answers now,” Kerry told voters in Tougaloo.

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The senator said he is considering asking a bipartisan group of legislators to go to Iraq in the coming months to gather information about the situation on the ground.

“I’d like to see what the latest assessment is of people I trust,” he told reporters. “I think that would be very valuable in formulation of policy and in my ability at this moment to get important updates beyond those that I’ve gotten through other people’s intelligence and the newspapers.”

Kerry said that he would be wary of going to Iraq himself to avoid any “politicization” of the war, but he added that he has not ruled out a trip abroad as a candidate.

On another front, the presumed Democratic nominee said he plans to meet with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean this week, and is scheduling a similar meeting soon with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

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Their recent withdrawals from the race have taken the fight out of Tuesday’s Democratic primaries in four Southern states. Nevertheless, Kerry is campaigning in all of them over a four-day period, using his stops to take swings at Bush.

The Massachusetts senator has also attempted to demonstrate a comfort level in a region where Democrats have lost ground in recent years. He ate crawfish in New Orleans, tossed out Spanish phrases in San Antonio and attended church in Jackson.

At the Greater Bethlehem Temple Church, Kerry quoted scripture and chided politicians whose actions do not reflect their rhetoric. He did not name Bush, but recalled phrases like “compassionate conservative” and “Leave No Child Behind.”

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?” he said, quoting a passage from the Book of James.

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Later, Kerry told more than 500 people gathered in the gym of Tougaloo College that he is not worried about regional differences.

“Everybody always says, ‘How’s a guy from Massachusetts ... going to come down to Mississippi and talk to folks about their lives in a way that’s going to connect with them?’ ” he said. “I’m going to talk mainstream American values and common sense.... The last time I looked this is one country, with one set of hopes and dreams.”

However, Kerry’s challenge in bridging the cultural divide that separates much of the country was exemplified minutes later during an exchange with a woman who identified herself as a “registered Democrat but independent voter” who complained about the gay rights movement.

“Most of the people in this country are sick and tired of the onslaught of the homosexual community using the civil rights movement to further their agenda,” she said.

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In response, Kerry reiterated his opposition to gay marriage but strongly defended the need to ensure that all citizens are treated equally. He recalled hate crimes, such as the murders of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was lashed to a fence post in Wyoming, and James Byrd Jr., a black man who was dragged to death in Texas.

“My point is homosexuality is an idea,” the woman responded, describing it as blasphemous.

“I know the deep beliefs and I’m a Christian and I’ve read the Bible and I understand,” Kerry said gently. “That’s irrelevant to the argument. American citizens deserve the protection of the equal protection clause of the United States.”

Kerry flew late Sunday night to Florida, where he planned to hold three events today.

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