msnbc.com
updated 4/29/2004 5:43:18 PM ET 2004-04-29T21:43:18

Vice President Dick Cheney emerged from his undisclosed location this week to play both gladiator and lion bait in the center of the campaign arena.

Not only was Cheney a protagonist in a historic Supreme Court argument over how thoroughly the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch can search his 2001 energy task force records, but he blasted Democratic candidate John Kerry for not supporting the Bush-Cheney policy in Iraq.

In a speech in Missouri on Monday, Cheney said Kerry “has vowed to usher in a golden age of American diplomacy. He is fond of mentioning that some countries did not support America’s actions in Iraq. Yet to the many nations that have joined our coalition, Senator Kerry offers only condescension.”

Cheney charged Kerry with insulting Great Britain, Japan and others by labeling them “a coalition of the coerced and the bribed.”

“I am aware of no other instance in which a presumptive nominee for president of the United States has spoken with such disdain of active, fighting allies of the United States in a time of war,” Cheney said.

Who should Kerry choose?Meanwhile Bush surrogate Karen Hughes assailed Kerry for saying in 1971 that he and other U.S. military personnel committed atrocities in Vietnam and for throwing away military decorations to protest the Vietnam War.

Multiple deferments
Enraged Democrats aimed a lot of their return fire at Cheney, who got multiple deferments from military service during the 1960s.

“Who the hell is Dick Cheney? Who is Dick Cheney to question John Kerry’s fitness to serve as Commander in Chief?” fumed Democratic firebrand Jim Jordan, Kerry’s ex-campaign manager.

“We know who the chicken hawks are,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., on Wednesday. “They talk tough on national defense and military issues and cast aspersions on others, but when it was their turn to serve, they were AWOL from courage.”

On Tuesday, Kerry lambasted both Bush and Cheney: “A lot of veterans are going to be very angry at a president who can’t account for his own service in the National Guard, and a vice president who got every deferment in the world.”

Pro-Kerry group Moveon.org aired a tough ad accusing Bush of shirking his duty and praising Kerry as a war hero. “This election is about character,” the ad said. “It’s between John Kerry, who left no man behind and George W. Bush, who simply left.”

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For a few days, the hubbub diverted attention from Kerry’s economic message.

Bush attacks hurting Kerry
“Bush has not faltered” in polling, said Democratic strategists James Carville and Stan Greenberg this week, “because John Kerry has not yet introduced himself nationally and he has been hurt by the Bush attacks, particularly in the battleground states, reinforced by heavy negative advertising.”

They added, “Kerry is sure to move up as he sets out his positions, message, biography and leadership qualities, which will surely happen.”

Democrats were heartened by a New York Times poll that showed Bush’s approval rating stood at 46 percent, the lowest level of his presidency. Yet Bush still edged Kerry in a three-way hypothetical horse race with Ralph Nader in the New York Times poll.

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