Kerry, Bush Clash Over Who Can Lead

Sen. John F. Kerry today accused President Bush of mishandling the war in Iraq and the battle against terrorism, painting a portrait of his rival as an isolated and stubborn man who has failed as commander in chief.

Joined in Waterloo by four military commanders and activist Kristin Breitweiser, who lost her husband in the Sept. 11 attacks, Kerry offered a detailed, 57-minute summary of his case against Bush's leadership on national security, a speech his campaign billed as a rebuttal to the president's charge Monday that Kerry would be a weak leader.

Kerry and Bush campaigned in Iowa today, less than two weeks before the nation decides the presidency.

In Mason City, a northern Iowa farming community, President Bush responded swiftly and forcefully, declaring that Kerry "cannot lead this nation to a decisive victory" because he fails to see "the true dangers" of a post 9/11 world.

Citing statements by Kerry and his foreign policy advisors, the president said they reflected "very dangerous thinking" that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the war on terrorism.

"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.

While the Republicans have attempted to raise questions about Kerry's steadfastness as a potential commander in chief, the Democrat sought to press his argument that Bush has put the United States at more risk.

"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," the Massachusetts senator told an audience of about 500 people in the convention center in Waterloo. "And the problem is the commander in chief has not been doing his.

"On George Bush's watch, America is more threatened than ever before," he added.

Kerry ticked off a series of reports and remarks by administration officials and military commanders that have sought to undermined Bush's rationales for going to war in Iraq and his handling of the aftermath of the invasion.

"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.

"He is, I think, literally in denial," Kerry added.

Kerry reiterated his promise to enlist a broad coalition of international support to stabilize Iraq and crack down on terrorists, mocking the president's claim that he has done so.

"You know, the president says he's a leader," Kerry said. "Well, Mr. President, look behind you. There's hardly anyone there."

He accused Bush of treating American allies with "disdain" and exhibiting juvenile behavior by refusing to allow countries that did not assist in the war to share in the reconstruction of Iraq.

"I mean that's almost like a schoolyard decision, you know," he said. "You hit me, therefore, I'm not going to do this and things tumble downwards. You learn more in elementary school and high school that they seem to have applied in the conduct of this war."

The Bush campaign dismissed Kerry's speech as "more muddled contradictions."

"He said he will bring more allies to the table, even though he has repeatedly denigrated and insulted the more than 30 allies that stand with our country in Iraq," said spokesman Steve Schmidt.

Bush's response to Kerry came near the end of a standard stump speech, the first of three he was to deliver today as he campaigned in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin — three states that he narrowly lost in 2000 to Al Gore but that are considered up for grabs this time.

The president's rapid response to Kerry underscored the extent to which the senator lately has been setting the terms of the daily back-and-forth between the candidates. On Tuesday, he blamed Bush for the national shortage of flu vaccines and accused the president of harboring plans to "privatize" Social Security — forcing Bush to respond on each point. Bush in recent days also has had to answer — by denying — Kerry's charge that he would reinstate the military draft.

In refuting Kerry's charges, Bush criticized a recent remark by Kerry that the Sept. 11 attacks had not altered his thinking and a comment by a senior Kerry foreign policy advisor that the nation is not in a war on terror in a literal sense.

Those statements, Bush said, show that Kerry and his team harbor "a fundamental misunderstanding of the war we face and that is very dangerous thinking."

Kerry's campaign also confirmed today that former President Bill Clinton will join the senator for a rally in Philadelphia on Monday, his first public campaign event since heart surgery in early September. Clinton may do other campaign events if his health permits, Kerry spokesman Mike McCurry said.

Gold and Chen reported from Iowa. Times staff writer Mary MacVean handled rewrite in Los Angeles.