NEW YORK — Democratic White House challenger John Kerry accused President Bush of manipulating fears about security and terror for political gain Thursday.
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At a fund-raiser for the Democratic National Committee, Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, said that “on a fair playing field in this race we’re going to win” and that Republicans were in trouble if he raised enough money to counter advertisements defining him as a waffling tax-and-spend liberal.
Kerry, who is running even with or leading Bush in most polls seven months before the November election, said the president wanted to turn the political debate to issues of terror and security in hope of gaining political advantage.
“Home base for George Bush, as we saw to the nth degree in the press conference, is terror. Ask him a question, he’s going to terror,” Kerry said, referring to Bush’s prime-time news conference Tuesday .
“Everything he did in Iraq he’s going to try to persuade people has to do with terror even though everybody here knows it had nothing whatsoever to do with al-Qaida and everything to do with an agenda that they had preset,” he told the breakfast crowd at the restaurant 21.
“Part of my task, obviously, is to convince America — we don’t have to beat him on it — but we have to convince America of my ability to be able to manage that as effectively or more effectively if possible, and I think we can,” Kerry said.
Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush-Cheney campaign, called Kerry’s allegation “reckless,” saying it “demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the global war on terror and the threat facing America and the world.”
Referring to an audiotape believed to carry a new message from al-Qaida terrorist leader Osama bin Laden, Racicot said in a statement: “On a day when Osama bin Laden again threatened the United States and our allies, it is disturbing to realize that John Kerry neither recognizes nor understands the murderous ideology of our enemies and the threat that they pose to our nation.”
Sees ‘silver lining’
Kerry, who has been the target of tens of millions of dollars worth of negative ads from Bush, said he planned to launch a “ positive, affirmative advertising campaign ” in the next few days to introduce himself to voters.
“A lot of people still don’t know who I am,” he said. “The level of communication we still need to undertake here is enormous.”Kerry said the “silver lining” in the campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was that Dean’s decision to reject public financing and its accompanying spending limits forced Kerry to do the same to keep up.
That decision freed him to raise and spend the money necessary to introduce himself to voters and fight back against Republican attacks, he said.
“What the Republicans were counting on was a nominee they could easily define and be alone in the marketplace,” he said.
“If we fight on a fair playing field in this race, we’re going to win. They know that all things being equal, they’re in trouble.”
Kerry, who is in the midst of a 20-city fund-raising tour to try to erase some of Bush’s financial advantage, pulled in $6.5 million Wednesday night in New York and $2.4 million for the DNC at the breakfast Thursday.
Kerry planned to meet later in Washington with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the archbishop of Washington, who heads a panel studying how to approach politicians whose views diverge from Catholic doctrine.
As the first Catholic at the top of a major party ticket since John F. Kennedy in 1960, Kerry and his support for abortion rights have led some in the church hierarchy to say they would deny him Communion.
Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis advised Kerry not to “present himself for Communion” at any church in the city. A few other bishops have issued similar warnings, but Kerry has taken Communion at several Catholic churches in recent weeks, including in Boston on Easter.
McCarrick has said that Kerry should follow church teachings but that he would not want to use Communion as part of any sanctions on a politician.
Students warming to Kerry
A Harvard University study, meanwhile, showed Thursday that Kerry had widened his lead over Bush among college students, who appeared to be increasingly concerned about the war in Iraq and an uncertain job market,
Researchers at Harvard’s Institute of Politics found that while Kerry led Bush by 48 percent to 38 percent, nearly 40 percent of Kerry supporters said they did not know enough about him.
Independent candidate Ralph Nader trailed, with 5 percent of the vote.
A national poll of 1,205 college students, conducted from March 12 to March 23, with a margin of error of 2.8 percent, showed that support for Bush on college campuses had fallen, with his approval rating dropping from 61 percent in October to 47 percent.
“Dissatisfaction with the war in Iraq, a continued weak job market and the president’s opposition to gay marriage appear to be moving students toward Sen. Kerry,” said Dan Glickman, director for Harvard’s Institute of Politics and former agriculture secretary in the Clinton administration. “That withstanding, Kerry’s lead is still soft.”
Support for the war in Iraq has dropped to 49 percent from 58 percent in October, the Harvard study said. Two-thirds of students believe it will be difficult for them to find a job after they graduate. The study also showed that 57 percent support same-sex marriages.
Harvard political researchers said the candidates must reach out to the 5.1 million college students in the United States, many of which are highly coveted independent voters.
College students “are repulsed by the extremism of the party,” said David King, director of political research at Harvard. “They don’t want to be seen as a Democrat or Republican.”
The survey found that 62 percent of college students planned to vote in the election, up from 50 percent four years ago, as controversial issues, such as Iraq, have captured their attention.
Still, college students are less willing to be classified as either conservative or liberal, with 42 percent being pegged in the Harvard report as independent.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.