Bush, Kerry Focus on Iraq, Consistency

Times Staff Writers

WESTLAKE, OhioPresident Bush today escalated his counterattack on John F. Kerry over explosives missing in Iraq, accusing his opponent of putting "politics ahead of facts" in an effort to garner votes Tuesday.

Bush, engaging in a second day of damage control on an issue that threatens to dominate the presidential race through election day, said Kerry was casting blame despite a lack of conclusive information about the disappearance of 380 tons of Iraqi military explosives.

Kerry, who is also in the Midwest today, called on Bush to "start taking responsibility" for mistakes in the war.

The president said a Kerry campaign spokesman had been forced to acknowledge the possibility that the munitions might have been taken from a weapons bunker outside Baghdad before U.S. troops arrived on the scene in April 2003.

"A president needs to get all the facts before jumping to politically motivated conclusions," Bush told supporters 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."

Kerry, speaking to thousands of supporters in a Toledo, Ohio, sports arena, sought to blunt the Bush campaign's effort to convince voters that the Democrat was blaming U.S. troops for failing to secure the explosives.

"Mr. President, here are the facts that every American can understand, it seems, except for you," Kerry said.

"You were warned to guard them," he said. "You didn't guard them. They're not secure."

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, telling voters they deserved a commander in chief who does not "blow in the wind."

Bush said he was willing to adjust his course in response to changing circumstances, but not to compromise his principles.

"The world looks to America for leadership, and it is important for the president to be consistent," Bush told a cheering crowd of supporters in Saginaw, Mich.

The remarks appeared to be an attempt to return to the theme of presidential leadership in times of crisis, which polls suggest is one of Bush's strong suits, and to portray Kerry as an opportunistic flip-flopper whose positions shift with the latest opinion polls.

Bush sought to reframe the debate during the second leg of a two-day swing through Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The three states will cast a combined 58 electoral votes, and are considered up for grabs by both campaigns. It takes 270 electoral votes to win the election.

Kerry, in Ohio, recalled President John F. Kennedy's acceptance of responsibility for the botched Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained rebels in 1961.

"John Kennedy knew how to take responsibility for the mistake he made, and Mr. President, it is long since time for you to start taking responsibility for the mistakes that you've made," Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, said.

The Toledo rally came the morning after Kerry's hometown baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, won the World Series. Kerry bounded on stage wearing a Red Sox cap.

"Everybody in America has to agree that a team that can come back against the New York Yankees from three down, win four straight, and then win four straight, it's a great American story," he said. "And it gives us all a good feeling about our country. A team with heart, because we are a country with heart, and we're going to show it to the world."

Vieth reported from Michigan, Finnegan from Ohio. Times staff writer Mary MacVean contributed from Los Angeles.

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