With three new polls showing the race for the White House dead even, President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry traded harsh words on terrorism and the Iraq war Wednesday as they dashed across campaign battlegrounds of the Midwest.
In Iowa, where both campaigned Wednesday morning, Kerry portrayed Bush as a stubborn and isolated president who botched his responsibilities as commander in chief. Joined by four retired military commanders and Sept. 11 widow Kristin Breitweiser, the Democratic presidential nominee pressed his case that Bush had heightened the risk of terrorist attacks against the United States.
"Make no mistake: Our troops are the best-trained, best-led forces in the world, and they have been doing their job honorably and bravely, and the problem is the commander in chief has not been doing his," Kerry told a crowd of about 500 at a Waterloo convention center.
"On George Bush's watch," he said, "America is more threatened than ever before."
The Massachusetts senator charged that Bush "likes to confuse" the Iraq war with the fight against terrorism, calling the former "a diversion" from the latter.
Bush invoked Abu Musab Zarqawi, the militant believed to be behind much of the Iraqi insurgency, to argue that Kerry could not be trusted to keep America safe.
"The case of one terrorist shows how wrong [Kerry's] thinking is," Bush said at a rally in Mason City, Iowa. Saying Zarqawi was "responsible for planting car bombs and beheading Americans" in Iraq, Bush said the U.S. had destroyed his terrorist training camp in Afghanistan, forcing him to flee to Iraq, where he "continued his plotting and planning."
"Just the other day, Zarqawi publicly announced his sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden," Bush said. "If Zarqawi and his associates were not busy fighting American forces in Iraq, does Sen. Kerry think he would be leading a productive and peaceful life? Of course not. And that's why Iraq is no diversion, but a central commitment in the war on terror, a place where our military is confronting and defeating terrorists overseas so we do not have to face them here at home."
The back-and-forth came as new polls showed an extremely close race. Surveys of likely voters by the Pew Research Center, NBC News-Wall Street Journal and Reuters-Zogby found Bush and Kerry in an exact tie.
A fourth poll by ABC News and the Washington Post gave Bush a 5-percentage-point advantage. At the start of the week, Bush had slim leads in most national polls. In the TV ad battle raging in the 14 states where Bush and Kerry are running closest in polls, terrorism and Iraq are featured in new spots.
A Republican National Committee ad seizes on a recent Kerry statement about his desire to reduce the terrorist threat to a "nuisance." The ad, which aired Tuesday in Denver, asked whether Kerry was "too weak" against terrorism.
The Media Fund, a liberal group unaffiliated with the Kerry campaign, aired two new spots on Black Entertainment Television that charged Bush was out of step with African Americans. In one, a narrator said: "The way this war's going, our 14-year-olds are going to be fighting in Iraq in four years. You better wake up before you get taken out."
In Michigan on Wednesday, Vice President Dick Cheney emphasized war and terrorism as he hammered Kerry's record on national security. Speaking near Flint, Cheney faulted Kerry for voting against a measure to finance U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Cheney also explicitly linked the Iraq war and the effort to protect the United States from terrorist strikes. The bipartisan Sept. 11 commission said it found no evidence of a "collaborative operational relationship" between Al Qaeda and former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
As the U.S. establishes a democracy in Iraq, Cheney said, "it is absolutely essential that we get it right if we are going to change the circumstances on the ground in that part of the world and reduce the threat that we'll get hit again like we did on 9/11.
"Iraq represents the place where we thought there was the greatest likelihood of terrorists on the one hand coming together with those deadly technologies on the other," he said. Evidence of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons programs under Hussein has not been found.
Cheney's visit to Michigan was part of the GOP ticket's focus Wednesday on Midwestern states that Bush lost narrowly to Al Gore in 2000.
Kerry campaigned in Pittsburgh on Wednesday after his Iowa visit. His running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, campaigned in Ohio and Iowa. Kerry's campaign confirmed Wednesday that Bill Clinton planned to join Kerry for a rally in Philadelphia on Monday, the former president's first public campaign event since his heart surgery in September.
In Waterloo, Kerry ticked off recent reports and remarks by administration officials and military commanders that he said had undercut Bush's rationale for invading Iraq and his handling of the aftermath.
"In Iraq, every week brings fresh evidence that President Bush just doesn't see what's happening, and he isn't leveling with the American people about why we went to war, how the war is going -- and he has no idea how to put our policy back on track," he said.
Kerry renewed his pledge to enlist a broad coalition of allies to stabilize Iraq, mocking Bush's claim to have done so himself.
"You know, the president says he's a leader," Kerry said. "Well, Mr. President, look behind you. There's hardly anyone there." He called Bush's refusal to award Iraq reconstruction jobs to countries that did not assist in the war "almost like a schoolyard decision."
In Mason City, Bush said Kerry "cannot lead this nation to decisive victory" because he failed to see "the true dangers of a post-Sept. 11 world."
"The next commander in chief must lead us to victory in this war, and you cannot win a war when you don't believe you're fighting one," Bush told thousands of supporters.
Bush scoffed at a recent remark by Richard C. Holbrooke, a top Kerry advisor, who said: "We're not in a war on terror in the literal sense. The war on terror is like saying 'the war on poverty.' It's just a metaphor. What we're really talking about is winning the ideological struggle so that people stop turning themselves into suicide bombers."
Bush said: "Confusing food programs with terrorist killings reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the war we face, and that is very dangerous thinking."
Staff writers Nick Anderson, Michael Finnegan and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.