PENSACOLA, Fla. — President Bush criticized Democratic rival John Kerry on Tuesday for saying he would still have voted to authorize the war in Iraq even if he had known that no weapons of mass destruction would be found.
Meanwhile, Kerry, seeking votes in the swing state of Nevada, told fire and rescue workers that he opposes storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain because of the safety, security and economic risks it poses.
In Florida, Bush told several thousand cheering supporters that “almost 220 days after switching positions to declare himself the anti-war candidate, my opponent has found a new nuance,” saying he “now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq.”
“After months of questioning my motives and even my credibility, Senator Kerry now agrees with me that even though we have not found the stockpiles of weapons we all believe were there ... he would have voted to go into Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power,” Bush said.
“I want to thank Senator Kerry for clearing that up,” the president added.
On Monday, Kerry said he would have voted to authorize the war knowing what he does now, but that he would have used the power more effectively than the current commander in chief. The Massachusetts senator voted in October 2002 to give Bush authority for using military force in Iraq, but voted against supplemental funding for the effort .
Answering Bush's challenge
Kerry’s comments came after Bush challenged him for a yes-or-no answer to the question of whether he would have supported the invasion “knowing what we know now” about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction.
“I have given my answer. We did the right thing and the world is better off for it,” the president said last Friday.
In response, Kerry said, “Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a president to have.” But he faulted the use of that authority, saying Bush sent troops into war without a plan to win the peace.
With Sen. John McCain at his side, Bush said a second-term goal is to spread peace and fight terrorism.
“Ask who will best lead our nation forward,” Bush said to applause on his 24th presidential visit to the state that won him the 2000 election by 537 votes. The daylong bus tour of the panhandle, including stops in Niceville and Panama City, also is Bush’s seventh trip of the year to Florida, where brother Jeb is governor.
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Polls suggest Bush and Kerry are close in Florida, which has 27 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the Nov. 2 election, and both candidates are blitzing the state with advertising.
Introducing Bush, McCain said vanquishing terrorism “is the great test of our generation” and praised the president for leading “with great moral clarity.”
“He has not wavered. He has not flinched from the hard choices,” said McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam. McCain challenged Bush for the GOP nomination in 2000 and has had several public disagreements with the administration.
Counterpoint to Kerry's war record
But by appearing with Bush, McCain helps to counter Kerry’s decorated Navy service during Vietnam, a period that Bush spent serving stateside in the Texas Air National Guard.
McCain also campaigns with Bush in Arizona and New Mexico on Wednesday.
Air Force One landed at the Naval Air Station here, which serves as the launching point for the flight training of every Naval aviator, naval flight officer and enlisted air crewman. McCain served there.
Voters in the Florida Panhandle historically have elected Republicans or moderate Democrats.
On Yucaa Mountain, "this isn’t just a Las Vegas issue or a Nevada issue, "Kerry said in prepared remakrs. "It’s an American issue. Under the Yucca Mountain plan, more than 50,000 shipments of waste would travel just yards away from homes, hospitals, parks and playgrounds in states across this country.”
Kerry talked about nuclear waste after leaving his last stop in Arizona, where he pledged that a Democratic White House would listen and respond to financially strained families. He was winding down a Southwestern train trek and steering his coast-to-coast campaign into Nevada and California.
'Working two or three jobs'
“There’s some people working two or three jobs, trying to make ends meet, put food on the table,” Kerry said. “That’s what this fight is about.”
Kerry’s campaign made a stop in Kingman along the historic Route 66 highway after five days aboard a train that cut through the Midwest into the Southwest. Kerry is challenging Bush, who plans to campaign in the state on Wednesday, for Arizona’s 10 electoral votes.
Nevada, which went for Bush by about 4 percentage points in 2000, offers five electoral votes.
Repeating a frequent criticism of the president’s economic policies, Kerry said he would withdraw tax cuts given to the richest 2 percent of the nation and funnel more money into health care and education.
Video: Punch card voting lingers “We’ve got a Washington, D.C., that’s running away under the control of big money, big influence, and it’s all coming out of your pockets,” he said. “We’ve got to fix this tax code. I’m going to do it in a flash. Give me a nanosecond.”
As part of Kerry’s populist message to the crowd, he said he knows the value of hard work and fairness, despite his own privileged upbringing and said he understands the pressures facing many families.
“They say, John, I’m working harder and harder. I work weekends. I’m working 24-7. I still can’t get ahead, and I don’t have time to be with my family. I don’t have time to be with my kids,” Kerry said.
“Twenty years ago, one breadwinner had the ability to be able to pay the mortgage and pay for college, and you could have a parent at home. That’s gone.”
Doug Wilson, the campaign’s Arizona state director, said Kerry hopes to appeal to the state’s growing Hispanic population and many Native Americans. He also hopes to make inroads among moderate Republicans and the independents moving into Arizona from places such as California.
“It’s arriving as a real possibility for all Democrats,” Wilson said. “The challenge for Kerry in a place like this is to get beyond the stereotypes” painted by opponents.
In Arizona, Kerry got off the train that took his two-week coast-to-coast campaign from St. Louis into the Southwest. He called it an “extraordinary” trip but also admitted the sight of some riders on Harley-Davidsons made him yearn for his own motorcycle.
Anti-Kerry ad draws complaints
Also Tuesday, three campaign finance watchdog groups filed a complaint accusing a group of Vietnam veterans of violating the campaign finance law by airing an ad that challenges Kerry’s military record.
Democracy 21, the Center for Responsive Politics and the Campaign Legal Center argue that the ad by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth violates a federal ban on the use of unlimited donations, often referred to as “soft money,” to influence federal elections.
In the ad, the group accuses Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, of lying about his war record and betraying fellow veterans by later protesting the conflict. Veterans who served with Kerry on his swiftboat have said the group is lying, and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona has called the ad “dishonest and dishonorable.”
The group bought $500,000 worth of airtime to run the ad in Wisconsin, Ohio and West Virginia.
In the complaint to the Federal Election Commission, the watchdog groups argued that Swift Boat Veterans for Truth should have used only limited contributions from individuals known as hard money on the ad and should disclose its donations and spending in reports to the FEC.
'Open and shut'
“We this think is open and shut, that the only purpose of this group is to influence the presidential election,” said Fred Wertheimer, head of Democracy 21.
Mike Russell, a spokesman for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, said the ad is legal because it does not tell viewers which candidate they should vote for in the presidential race.
“The ads are not meant to influence the presidential election. The ads are meant to tell the truth about John Kerry’s service record so people can make their own decisions,” Russell said.
The veterans group said it has at least 5,000 new contributors and has raised more than $230,000 since the ad started running last week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.