Munitions Issue Cuts Both Ways

Times Staff Writers

Seeking to turn the controversy over missing explosives in Iraq to his advantage, President Bush on Thursday said Sen. John F. Kerry was willing to put “politics ahead of facts” on the issue, while the Democratic presidential candidate called on Bush to start taking responsibility for mistakes in Iraq.

As the contest moved toward Tuesday’s election, Kerry sought to energize his supporters by campaigning alongside rock star Bruce Springsteen, who helped draw upwards of 80,000 people at a rally in Madison, Wis., and tens of thousands more in Columbus, Ohio.

Bush today plans to bring his own star power to the campaign trail, appearing with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former bodybuilder and actor, at a rally in Columbus, Ohio.


But as it has throughout the campaign, the issue of Iraq dominated the debate. Kerry, who has been attacking Bush about missing explosives all week, used the issue again Thursday to buttress his argument that the president had mishandled the war and wouldn’t admit it.

At a rally in Toledo, Ohio, he criticized Bush for invoking the name of President Kennedy as part of his effort to reach out to Democrats.

Kerry made note of Kennedy’s acceptance of blame for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained rebels in 1961.

“Can you imagine President Kennedy, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs, standing up and telling the American people that he couldn’t think of a single mistake he’d made?” the Massachusetts senator told thousands of supporters at a Toledo sports arena. “That he would do everything again exactly the same way? Mr. President, John Kennedy was a leader who knew how to take responsibility for his actions.

“Mr. President, it’s time for you to take responsibility for yours,” Kerry said. “Our troops in Iraq are doing a heroic job. The problem is, our commander in chief isn’t doing his.”

The Bush campaign found itself conducting damage control on three fronts: over the missing 380 tons of munitions, comments by New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and controversy over a digitally altered television ad.


But it was the munitions issue that the Bush camp focused on, suggesting that Kerry’s comments raised more doubts about the senator than they did about the president.

“This has allowed us to crystallize that this is a man on the other side who will say anything to get elected,” said chief Bush strategist Karl Rove.

Bush communications director Nicolle Devenish said the munitions controversy actually worked to the president’s advantage by rallying his supporters.

“We’re really locked into a dogfight here,” Devenish said. “Ironically, at this stage, what’s good for them is good for us.”

On the second of two days of campaigning in Midwest battlegrounds, Bush stretched his theme of the day -- leadership -- to encompass the debate over the missing munitions, by arguing for a second day that Kerry’s attacks over the issue were irresponsible.

He appeared to take delight in a Kerry advisor’s acknowledgment that it was not possible to rule out that the munitions might have been taken from a weapons bunker outside of Baghdad before U.S. troops first arrived on the scene in early April 2003.


“A president needs to get all the facts before jumping to politically motivated conclusions,” Bush told thousands of supporters at a campaign event in Dayton, Ohio. “The senator’s willingness to trade principle for political convenience makes it clear that John Kerry is the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time.”

Bush’s rebuke was a play on Kerry’s accusation earlier in the campaign that the invasion of Iraq was “the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Kerry sought to turn Bush’s remarks about the explosives against him.

“Mr. President, I agree with you,” Kerry told the crowd, saying Bush “jumped to conclusions” about weapons of mass destruction, about unsubstantiated ties between Saddam Hussein and the Sept. 11 attacks, and about “how the Iraqi people would receive our troops.”

Giuliani, a Bush ally, entered the fray -- but not necessarily in a way that helped the president’s campaign.

“No matter how you try to blame it on the president, the actual responsibility for it really would be with the troops. They were there.” Giuliani said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show. “Did they search carefully enough? Didn’t they search carefully enough?”

Bush aides tried to dismiss the remark: “Our troops in the heat of battle did a fabulous job,” Rove said.


Still, the comment came at an awkward time for the Bush campaign, which has been attempting to convince voters that Kerry was blaming U.S. troops, rather than the president, for the failure to secure the explosives in a vast depot outside Baghdad.

Meanwhile, the Bush camp acknowledged that a campaign ad contained a doctored photo that repeated the images of some soldiers in a crowd.

The Bush campaign said the faces were edited in to cover over Bush and his lectern, which were in the original picture.

The Kerry camp jumped on the issue of the doctored picture, saying the Bush campaign couldn’t even be honest in its advertising.

Kerry’s rallies with Springsteen in Madison and Columbus, Ohio, were aimed at spurring a strong Democratic turnout in the upcoming election, particularly in those battleground states. With Bush and Kerry running dead-even in many polls, the election results could depend on which candidate succeeds in drawing the most loyalists to vote.

At the first rally, Springsteen and Kerry drew upwards of 80,000 people, who filled six blocks of a wide boulevard leading to the domed state Capitol.


Springsteen paid tribute to Kerry, saying he would honor the ideals the pop icon had championed in 30 years as a songwriter, among them the right to “a living wage so folks don’t have to break their backs and still not make ends meet.”

Kerry told the spectators, many of them University of Wisconsin students, that he would use the presidency to represent “the people [Springsteen] sings about.”

“We need a president who’s not fighting for the drug companies and the oil companies and the power companies,” Kerry shouted.

“We need a president who’s fighting for you, for the middle class, for America.”

For the campaign’s closing days, Kerry has accelerated his pace of travel to maximize news coverage in battleground states. Today he plans to hit three Florida cities -- Orlando, West Palm Beach and Miami -- before returning to Wisconsin.

The Bush campaign also was directing resources at Florida, where the 2000 election was decided by fewer than 600 votes.

First Lady Laura Bush broke from previously announced plans to campaign all day in the state, and Bush aides said the president would campaign there Saturday and Sunday.


The vice presidential candidates will head in opposite directions this weekend. Vice President Dick Cheney plans to fly to the once reliably Democratic state of Hawaii, where Republicans are threatening an election day upset. Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, is scheduled to go to Maine.

“The president’s leadership has resonated with the population; they have a strong economy; they recognize the danger of terrorism,” Anne Womack, Cheney’s campaign press secretary, said of the vice president’s visit to Hawaii. “We think it’s worth the trip.”

Democrats, in their final push on television, are also reaching across the Pacific Ocean to try to keep Hawaii in their column.

After polls showed the president gaining ground there, the Democratic National Committee this week aired an advertisement in Honolulu that charged that Bush favored the wealthy over the middle class, sided with drug companies over consumers and cozied up to the energy industry at a time of rising gas prices.

“Four more years?” the ad asked. “Hawaii can’t afford it.”

Bush campaign aides said the ongoing controversy over the missing munitions had not hurt the president.

Devenish said the president purposely waited two days to respond to the initial news reports Monday.


“Do not underestimate the power for our supporters of seeing the president fight back against an attack that’s falling apart,” Devenish told reporters.

Bush’s counterattack came as part of a broader effort to shift the focus of the presidential race back to the themes of leadership and consistency, in which he told voters they deserved a commander in chief who did not “blow in the wind.”

“The world looks to America for leadership, and it is important for the president to be consistent,” Bush told a cheering crowd in Saginaw, Mich., at the first of four rallies he attended in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“Tactics and strategy must be flexible,” he said. “But a president’s convictions must be steady and true.”

Rove and other Bush aides said they remained optimistic that the president would win reelection, saying their internal polling suggested they were leading Kerry in all battleground states except Pennsylvania, where the candidates were tied.

At a rally in Westlake, Ohio, outside Cleveland, two dozen retired generals, including Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces during the Iraq invasion, appeared on stage with Bush to endorse his leadership abilities.


Franks, who has been campaigning assiduously for the president, also rose to Bush’s defense on the question of what happened to the powerful explosives that vanished from an Iraqi military installation after the U.S. invasion last year.

The president, he said, “understands that we do not yet have all the facts about 380 tons of munitions in Iraq. And he is a president who will look at you and say, ‘We don’t yet have the facts, but we will get the facts.’ ”

Kerry has portrayed the disappearance, first reported Monday, as a major Bush blunder that has put U.S. troops at risk. He has also cast it as part of a rash of troubles stemming from what he calls Bush’s failure to plan for the war’s aftermath.

Senior Kerry advisor Mike McCurry called the failure to guard the explosives a metaphor for Bush’s failed leadership -- not just on Iraq, but on the economy, healthcare and other issues. Kerry’s goal, he said, was to illuminate “a series of wrong choices” by Bush that “present risk to the American people if we go with more of the same.”

At an evening rally in Davenport, Iowa, Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, used the news of an FBI investigation into Halliburton Co. to underscore the Democrats’ contention that the Bush administration placed the needs of special interests above those of the American people.

“Just today, we’ve learned that the FBI is investigating the Pentagon’s awarding a no-bid contract to Halliburton -- remember, Dick Cheney’s company,” he told more than a thousand students and supporters at North High School.


Cheney, meanwhile, also campaigned in the Midwest. In Schofield, Wis., he criticized Kerry for his continued attack on Bush for the missing munitions.

“The fact of the matter is, he’s just dead wrong,” Cheney said of Kerry.


Reynolds reported from Yardley, Pa., Finnegan from Columbus, Ohio. Times staff writers Warren Vieth in Yardley; Maria L. La Ganga in Simpson, Iowa; James Gerstenzang in Sioux City, Iowa; and Nick Anderson in Washington contributed to this report.