Jason Reed  /  Reuters
After meeting Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, left, President Bush on Tuesday challenged Sen. John Kerry to identify who he is talking about when he claims that some foreign leaders privately support him over Bush.
msnbc.com news services
updated 3/16/2004 12:03:59 PM ET 2004-03-16T17:03:59

On the same day that a new poll showed voters have big doubts about whether or not Sen. John Kerry says what he believes, President Bush challenged the Democratic presidential candidate to identify who he is talking about when he claims that some foreign leaders privately support him over Bush.

“If you’re going to make an accusation in the course of a presidential campaign, you ought to back it up with facts,” Bush told reporters in the Oval Office after meeting with Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands.

Kerry, meanwhile, dismissed White House suggestions that he is lying if he is not willing to identify the leaders.

“I’m not making anything up at all,” Kerry told The Associated Press in an interview Monday. He accused Republicans of “trying to change the subject” from jobs, health care and other issues.

In a telephone interview, the Massachusetts senator and presumptive Democratic nominee said “it’s no secret” that some countries are “deeply divided about our foreign policy. We have lost respect and influence in the world.”

He continued: “I stand by my statement. The point is not the leaders. What’s important is that this administration’s foreign policy is not making us as safe as we can be in the world.”

The dispute arose as a CBS News-New York Times Poll underscored potential vulnerabilities for both candidates: Voters have questions about whether Kerry says what he believes — one-third said yes, but almost six in 10 said no; when it comes to making economic decisions, almost six in 10 said they are uneasy about Bush’s ability to make economic decisions, while four in 10 said they were confident.

Wariness over international crises
When asked about each candidate’s ability to deal wisely with an international crisis — almost half, 46 percent, said they were uneasy about Bush, and about Kerry, 48 percent.

The poll also underscored the difference in familiarity with the incumbent Republican, who is well known, and the Massachusetts senator, who is just beginning to establish a national identity.

For example, voters were closely divided on whether they had favorable or unfavorable views of each candidate.

In the case of Bush, 43 percent had a favorable view, 39 percent had an unfavorable view and 17 percent were undecided. For Kerry, 28 percent had a favorable view, 29 percent had an unfavorable view and 41 percent were undecided.

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Both campaigns are spending millions on campaign ads to define Kerry, a four-term senator, for those undecided voters.

The poll found Bush with a slight lead overall, 46 percent to 43 percent — roughly the same difference as the poll’s margin of error. Two weeks ago in this poll, Kerry was at 47 percent and Bush was at 46 percent.

When independent Ralph Nader is added to the mix, Bush has a clear lead over Kerry, 46 percent to 38 percent, with Nader at 7 percent, according to the survey released Monday.

The poll of 1,286 adults, including 984 registered voters, was taken March 10-14 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

     Meanwhile, Kerry was heading to West Virginia to meet with fellow veterans and await the results of the presidential primary in Illinois, but the subject of his talks with world leaders was likely to follow him to the Mountain State. He already has won more than enough Democratic convention delegates to win the presidential nomination.

Foreign leaders comment won't go away
But the issue of his comments made at a Florida fund-raiser last week, that he’s heard from some world leaders who quietly back his candidacy and hope he is elected in November, was not going away. Kerry has declined to identify the leaders, saying to do so would betray confidences.

Three times Monday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan charged that Kerry was “making it up.” His reaction came one day after Secretary of State Colin Powell called on Kerry to name names but made no accusations.

“Either he is straightforward and states who they are, or the only conclusion one can draw is that he is making it up to attack the president,” McClellan said.

He also took issue with Kerry’s suggestions that the administration held up for political purposes the announcement of an agreement with Libya to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction; and that the administration had rebuffed offers from Russia and France to avert the Iraq war.

“This is not the first time he has refused to back up his assertions,” McClellan said.

In response, Kerry’s campaign issued a list of statements by Bush administration officials it portrayed as falsehoods, including the assertions that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and the prediction that tax cuts would create jobs.

Questions about McClellan
The campaign also wondered why the White House press secretary was doing the work of the re-election campaign.

“The White House would be better off spending its time repairing our alliances around the world so we can collectively fight the war on terrorism and better protect the United States, rather than using the White House press room as a place to carry out political attacks,” Kerry’s campaign said.

At the time Kerry made the remarks in Florida, press reports based on a transcription of a tape recording quoted him as referring to “foreign leaders.” On Monday, however, the Boston Globe reporter who transcribed Kerry’s comments said he had confused the word “foreign” with “more.” However, the context — that Kerry contended his campaign had international support — has not been challenged by Kerry or his aides.

Kerry’s visit Tuesday to Huntington and Charleston reflects West Virginia’s newfound importance on the electoral map. Once considered reliable territory for Democrats, the state voted for Bush over Al Gore in 2000.

In the AP interview, Kerry said Bush forgot his pledge to preserve West Virginia steel jobs when he rolled back tariffs he previously had applied on foreign steel. He also said Bush has reneged on his vow to invigorate the state’s coal economy by helping the industry adopt cleaner technology.

'Broken promises'
“I don’t think West Virginians appreciate broken promises,” Kerry said. “West Virginia deserves the attention of a presidential candidate who cares.”

He blamed Gore’s loss in West Virginia on his failure to respond to Republican criticisms of his stance on gun control in the state, where hunting and legal firearm ownership are part of the social fabric.

Kerry said that won’t happen to him. “I’m a gun owner. I’ve been a hunter since I was about 12 years old,” he said. “My position is very clear. I support the Second Amendment.”

On Monday, Democrat Al Sharpton formally endorsed Kerry for president, though without ending his own campaign. Sharpton said he hoped to continue winning delegates to help shape the party’s platform.

© 2013 msnbc.com


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