U.S. President George W. Bush speaks at an event titled "Ask President Bush" in Portsmouth, Ohio
Jason Reed  /  Reuters
If Kerry "had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power," Bush said.
updated 9/10/2004 8:45:06 PM ET 2004-09-11T00:45:06

In a harsh new attack on rival John Kerry, President Bush said Friday that if the Democratic presidential candidate “had his way,” Saddam Hussein’s regime would be running Iraq and threatening the safety of other nations.

In response to what it described as “George Bush’s distortions,” the Kerry campaign said, “Dick Cheney crossed the line earlier this week, so it’s no shock that George Bush is following his lead today.” Cheney had remarked that “the wrong choice” by voters could lead to another attack by terrorists.

In his own Friday salvo at Bush, Kerry linked U.S. assault weapon sales to worries about terrorism and said the president was bowing to the National Rifle Association by not pushing to keep alive an expiring ban.

Video: The politics of Medicare Campaigning with Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, who praised Bush for “never wavering, never waffling,” the president urged thousands of cheering supporters in Huntington, W.Va., to get new voters on the rolls before Election Day. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 in West Virginia.

Miller’s keynote address at the Republican convention galvanized delegates and left Democrats fuming over what they called an angry, inaccurate rant by the Georgia Democrat.

Sensing some momentum turning his way in Ohio and West Virginia, Bush was campaigning in blue-collar, Appalachian areas hit hard by the economic slowdown. At the start of a daylong bus tour, he stepped up his criticism of Kerry on Iraq.

“The newest wrinkle is that Sen. Kerry has now decided we are spending too much money in Iraq even though he criticized us earlier for not spending enough,” Bush said. “One thing about Sen. Kerry’s position is clear ... if he had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power and would still be a threat to our security and to the world.”

Kerry has not chided Bush for spending too much money on the war but has criticized the president for engaging in “a war of choice” without obtaining more financial support from allies. The war has cost nearly $200 billion that, according to Kerry, could have been used for domestic programs.

At a question-and-answer event in Portsmouth, Ohio, where the unemployment rate this year has hit double digits, a Bush supporter told the president that Kerry attended “the school of flip flops.” Bush said that Kerry and running mate John Edwards were among only four senators who voted yes to “use force but ’no’ when it comes to funding the troops.”

Kerry has said he voted for the $87 billion appropriation for the war when it was to be paid with revenues from rollbacks on some of Bush’s tax cuts. When the Republican-controlled Senate rejected that version, Kerry and Edwards voted against it.

Hospital, factories, university loom big
The economy in Portsmouth depends on a hospital, a handful of factories and the site of Bush’s appearance, Shawnee State University. Four union members from a Portsmouth factory rode on the president’s bus.

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Other Appalachian counties in southern Ohio have fared worse than the Portsmouth area, with jobless rates ranging from 16 to 22 percent.

Last year, Huntington, W.Va., was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy until the city imposed user taxes on people who work there. And on Friday, in the latest setback, a company with 600 employees in Huntington announced in a full-page newspaper ad that it is pulling out of West Virginia. The call center company, Applied Card, is mired in a legal battle with the state attorney general’s office over allegedly abusive collection methods.

“Six hundred jobs won’t break the West Virginia economy,” said the ad announcing the company’s plans to leave.

In 2000, Bush narrowly won West Virginia and Ohio and all three areas he visited Friday: the county encompassing Huntington by 1,500 votes; Portsmouth, Ohio, by 1,000 votes; and Chillicothe, Ohio, by 2,000 votes.

The visits were the president’s third to West Virginia and fourth to Ohio in the last 16 days, a period in which Bush has traveled every day to a closely contested state.

On the campaign trail in St. Louis, Mo., Kerry said if Bush is serious about fighting terrorism, he would extend the 10-year ban on sales of 19 kinds of semiautomatic assault weapons, due to expire on Monday.

A link to al-Qaida
“In the al-Qaida manual on terror, they were telling people to go out and buy assault weapons, to come to America and buy assault weapons,” Kerry said.

“Every law enforcement officer in America doesn’t want us selling assault weapons in the streets of America,” Kerry said. “But George Bush, he says, ‘Well, I’m for that.”’

Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt said the president has said he would sign the assault weapons extension into law if Congress passed it.

But Kerry pointed out that the president has not pressured Congress to pass the measure. He said Bush was caving in to the NRA and “America’s streets will not be as safe because of a choice that George Bush is making.”

Not all Democrats on Capitol Hill are eager to take up the issue. They are mindful in an election year that Democrats lost control of the House 10 years ago when then-President Clinton signed the original legislation into law.

Democrat Al Gore’s support of gun control brought on the ire of the NRA in 2000, and the organization helped in the successful campaigns against him in the swing states of West Virginia and Ohio.

This year, the Democratic presidential nominee is again fighting the NRA in battleground states where its membership is strong — also including Florida, Michigan, Missouri and Pennsylvania.

Video: Kerry on the attack The NRA says it is spending $400,000 a week to run a 30-minute anti-Kerry infomercial in several states. It says Kerry’s voting record in the Senate shows he would erode gun rights if elected president.

Pennsylvania poll
The Kerry campaign distributed a poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania that said two-thirds of the public and one-third of NRA members support an extension of the assault weapons ban.

“It’s a minority of people in this country who want to get rid of the assault weapons ban,” said Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart. “You can slice and dice the polls anyway you want, you can say it’s helpful or it’s hurtful, but the bottom line is that it’s a matter of principle for Senator Kerry.”

Kerry has been reaching out to gun owners as he campaigns in recent weeks, frequently talking about how he’s been hunting since he was a boy.

“I’ll tell you this, as a hunter, I have never ever thought about going hunting with an AK-47 or an Uzi or anything else,” Kerry said.

He added: “Heavens to Betsy, folks, we’ve had that law on the books for the last 10 years and there’s not a gun owner in America who can stand up and say, ‘They tried to take my guns away.”’

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