updated 3/15/2004 3:05:35 PM ET 2004-03-15T20:05:35

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry sought to focus on pocketbook issues in key battleground states Monday but found himself pressed to back up his claim that his campaign had the backing of foreign leaders.

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The White House kept up the pressure Monday. “If Senator Kerry is going to say he has support from foreign leaders, then he needs to be straightforward with the American people and say who it is that he has spoken with and who it is that supports him,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters.

If Kerry refuses, McClellan said, “then the only alternative is that he is making it up to attack the president of the United States.”

Kerry, who has declined to identify any leaders who have voiced support for his candidacy, did not address the issue in a speech Monday to the International Association of Firefighters. But his campaign issued a news release dismissing McClellan’s remarks.

“With so many serious questions facing this nation, it is unfortunate that this White House is resorting to engaging in campaign tactics,” the statement said.

“If the president wants his White House press secretary to be the press secretary for the re-election campaign, he ought to get him off the taxpayers’ payroll and stop using the White House for political purposes.”

Powell: ‘List some names’
The issue dogged Kerry throughout the weekend. Secretary of State Colin Powell started the debate when he spoke skeptically of Kerry’s claim on “Fox News Sunday.”

“I don’t know what foreign leaders Senator Kerry is talking about. It’s an easy charge, an easy assertion to make. But if he feels it is that important an assertion to make, he ought to list some names,” Powell said. “If he can’t list names, then perhaps he should find something else to talk about.”

The theme was raised by Cedric Brown, a participant in a town hall meeting in Pennsylvania. He wondered whether Kerry was meeting with foreign leaders “to help you overthrow the Bush presidency.”

Pressed repeatedly by Brown, Kerry finally declared: “That’s none of your business.”

Kerry, meet with reporters later Sunday, said he was within his rights to keep his conversations with foreign leaders confidential. “I don’t think Colin Powell or the president would start listing the names of people who said something critical,” he said.

Instead, he said, the real issue was the conduct of a U.S. foreign policy that had left the nation more isolated in the world. It was clear, he said, that the country’s standing had sagged internationally.

“The point is that all across the world, America is meeting with a new level of hostility,” he said. “There are relationships that have been broken. I think what’s important for us as a country is to rebuild those relationships.”

‘Big on bluster’
Kerry stuck to that theme Monday, arguing that President Bush had alienated allies and carried out failed policies.

“He’s pushed away our allies at a time when we need them the most,” Kerry said in his appearance at the firefighters union’s legislative conference. “He hasn’t pursued a strategy to win the hearts and minds of people around the world and win the war of ideas against the radical ideology of Osama bin Laden.”

Kerry also criticized Bush’s record on homeland security, accusing the president of being “big on bluster and short on action” in protecting the nation.

Kerry told the 263,000-member firefighters union, which has endorsed his candidacy, that Bush talked tough on terrorism but failed to back it up with the financial resources firefighters and other first responders needed.

“I do not fault George Bush for doing too much in the war on terror. I believe he’s done too little,” Kerry said. “I think this administration has it backward. President Bush says we can’t afford to fund homeland security. I say we can’t afford not to.”

The Bush-Cheney campaign responded that Bush’s budget request for fiscal year 2005 called for $500 million in grants for firefighters, a 400 percent increase since 2001.

“When John Kerry shows up to meet with union bosses today, he should explain why he didn’t show up for the vote on last year’s $29.3 billion Homeland Security appropriations bill,” said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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