updated 9/16/2004 8:13:43 PM ET 2004-09-17T00:13:43

President Bush pressed hard Thursday to undermine his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, as a prospective commander in chief, accusing him of waffling on Iraq and sending dangerously misleading signals to friend and foe alike.

Kerry, addressing National Guard veterans in Las Vegas, said it was Bush who was trying to persuade voters with “a fantasy world of spin” rather than telling the truth on Iraq.

At a rally at a minor-league baseball field in St. Cloud, Bush said as he campaigned through southeastern Minnesota by bus: “Mixed signals are the wrong signals to send to our troops in the field, our allies and, most of all, our enemies.”

Bush also kept up his criticism of Kerry’s health care proposals, saying they would create a multibillion-dollar government enterprise that would restrict people’s choices and drive private companies out of business.

The president campaigned in a state that Democrat Al Gore carried in 2000 and where Kerry is ahead in recent polls, but one that Republican strategists consider highly competitive.

Nationally, Bush has seemed to open a lead in the days after the Republican convention. However, one national poll Thursday suggested that the presidential contest had narrowed again.

‘Eight positions on Iraq’
While Kerry addressed the same National Guard convention in Las Vegas that Bush had spoken to two days earlier, the president in Minnesota hammered at a favorite theme: that Kerry had continually changed positions on the war in Iraq.

“The fellow I’m running against has had about eight positions on Iraq,” Bush said. “Yesterday, in a radio interview, he tried to clear things up.”

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That was a reference to Kerry’s interview Wednesday before with talk show host Don Imus in which Kerry said that he could not envision invading Iraq “under the current circumstances” but also said that it was right to hold Saddam Hussein accountable and that he had made the right decision in voting in 2002 to give Bush war authority.

Under indecisive leadership, Bush said, “the world will drift toward tragedy. This isn’t going to happen on my watch.” The crowd chanted, “Four more years.”

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Kerry said the problem was Bush’s approach and failure to own up to the seriousness of the situation in Iraq.

He told the National Guard Association of the United States: “I believe you deserve a president who isn’t going to gild that truth or gild our national security with politics, who is not going to ignore his own intelligence, who isn’t going to live in a different world of spin, who will give the American people the truth, not a fantasy world of spin, but a world where we challenge our brave men and women to be able to meet the test of our times.”

“Two days ago, the president stood right here where I’m standing and didn’t acknowledge that more than 1,000 men and women have lost their lives in Iraq. He didn’t tell you that with each passing day, we’re seeing more chaos, more violence, indiscriminate killings,” Kerry said.

Like Bush on Tuesday, Kerry was applauded, especially when he spoke of a need for good pay, equipment and treatment for guardsmen.

Cheney fires back
Vice President Dick Cheney, campaigning in Reno, Nev., took issue with Kerry’s remarks. “Senator Kerry said today that leadership starts with telling the truth, but the American people also know that true leadership requires the ability to make a decision,” Cheney said.

“Senator Kerry today said he would always be straight with the American people on the good days and on the bad days. In Senator Kerry’s case, that means when the headlines are good he’s for the war, and when his poll numbers are bad he’s against it,” Cheney said.

With less than seven weeks before Election Day, the Democrats rolled out a new ad campaign. It questions Bush’s credibility in an ad showing him declaring an end to major combat in May 2003 while standing in a flight suit on an aircraft carrier adorned with a “Mission Accomplished” banner. “How can you solve problems when you won’t even admit they’re there?” asks the ad, which will start Friday in battleground states and on national cable networks.

Polls differ on Bush lead
A new poll from the Pew Research Center said the “bounce” that seemed to propel Bush to a lead just after the Republican convention had disappeared. But he was ahead by double digits in another survey.

The Pew poll found the race at 46 percent to 46 percent among registered voters and 47 percent to 46 percent for Bush among likely voters. A Gallup poll being released Friday has Bush up 54 percent to 40 percent in a three-way matchup, with independent Ralph Nader at 3 percent.

Iraq was not the only issue the candidates were focused on.

Bush’s latest ad, running in Michigan, Ohio and other battleground states, says Kerry’s health care plan would be controlled by the government. “Not true,” Kerry’s campaign said in an ad released Thursday.

Yes it is, Bush said in Minnesota, trying to counter an issue that polls show is one of his weakest.

Bush’s criticism followed accusations by Kerry at health-care forums that the administration was manipulating reports to “hide the truth” that Medicare premiums would consume nearly 40 percent of the average person’s Social Security income by 2006.

Bush, trying to put Kerry on the run in a traditionally Democratic state, has started to spend more on advertising in Minnesota. That has forced Kerry to move up plans to advertise here. Bush’s trip was his fifth to Minnesota this year. Kerry has made six stops.

On his way from St. Cloud to Blaine, Bush stopped his bus caravan in the town of Anoka, where he grabbed a carryout lunch in the Brick House Deli.

He concluded his daylong bus tour at an outdoor rally in Rochester, where he again derided Kerry’s health care agenda, calling it “a massive, big government plan,” and portrayed his rival as indecisive on national security. “When the president of the United States speaks, he better mean what he says,” Bush said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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