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Bush and Kerry Mix It Up Over Iraq War

Times Staff Writer

President Bush on Wednesday accused Sen. John F. Kerry of sending “mixed signals” that were demoralizing Iraqis and U.S. troops serving in that country, the latest escalation in the war of words between the two campaigns on the conflict there.

“You cannot expect the Iraqi people to stand up and do the hard work of democracy if you’re pessimistic about their ability to govern themselves,” Bush told supporters in King of Prussia, Pa.

“You cannot expect our troops to continue doing the hard work if they hear mixed messages from Washington, D.C. Mixed signals are wrong signals.”

Bush’s comments were reinforced by an ad released by his campaign using footage of Kerry windsurfing to illustrate what it described as his “flip-flops” on Iraq, and echoed by other Bush campaigners, including Vice President Dick Cheney.

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Kerry rejected Bush’s charge, telling supporters in West Palm Beach, Fla., that “once again he’s avoiding the truth.”

“I am an optimist about what could be achieved” in Iraq, the Democratic presidential candidate said.

But a TV commercial by Kerry’s campaign called the Iraq situation a “quagmire,” invoking a term that was used to describe the Vietnam War.

Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, used the word Wednesday in a statement rebutting criticism from Cheney.

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Campaign spokesman Mike McCurry said both Democrats had described Iraq as a “quagmire” in the past, adding that it was not meant as an allusion to Vietnam.

Kerry said Wednesday he did not believe comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam were valid, at least not yet. “They can become appropriate,” he told National Public Radio. “It isn’t yet. But that depends on the decisions the president makes over the course of these next weeks.”

The senator from Massachusetts on Monday said the administration had “created a crisis of historic proportions.” He said that in overthrowing Saddam Hussein’s regime, the U.S. had “traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure.”

Bush and his allies responded that Kerry’s remarks contradicted previous positions he had taken on the war and Hussein’s ouster. The president reiterated that criticism Wednesday, saying, “You cannot lead the war against terror if you wilt or waver when times get tough.”

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Bush’s attacks came as he campaigned in Pennsylvania -- the state he has visited most as president, a total of 35 times -- amid signs the race was tightening there. Kerry had been leading in statewide polls during the summer, but several recent surveys showed the race for its 21 electoral votes was a statistical dead heat.

Democrat Al Gore carried Pennsylvania by 5 percentage points in the 2000 presidential election, but Bush and his top political advisor, Karl Rove, targeted the state early as a potential pickup for him this year.

Most analysts view Pennsylvania as a must-win for Kerry in his quest for the 270 electoral votes required for election.

Cheney on Wednesday launched his salvo at Kerry in comments to reporters in Washington. The vice president said Kerry “gives every indication ... of someone who lacks the resolve, the determination and the conviction to prevail” in the war on terrorism.

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The administration argues that its efforts to build a democracy in Iraq are a key part of fighting terrorism; Kerry on Monday termed the war in Iraq a diversion from the larger goal.

Bush’s visit to Pennsylvania included an aerial tour of regions near Pittsburgh still suffering from flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan last week.

From his helicopter, he could see streets strewn with debris, appliances and garbage.

Pennsylvania is among eight states declared disaster areas as a result of Hurricane Ivan. Others include Florida and Ohio -- each closely contested in the presidential campaign.

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Experts note that natural disasters are tests for incumbents; if they respond quickly and generously, those areas are more likely to reward them with votes.

“I hope my visit here with the senators and congressmen [says] as clearly as we can that we care about the devastation that took place -- that we understand the federal government has an obligation to help, and we will,” Bush said in Millvale, Pa.

He ended the day in Latrobe, where he was introduced at a rally by golf legend Arnold Palmer.

Bush acknowledged the upsurge in violence in Iraq.

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“As we’re seeing on our TV screens, it’s tough,” Bush told about 2,000 supporters. “It’s incredibly hard work because the terrorists are desperate.... Those terrorists will not defeat our military. They cannot defeat our military. The only thing they can do is behead people and try to shake our will.”


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