SANTA FE, N.M. — Bracing for their final debate, John Kerry accused President Bush of favoring “friends in the oil industry” over consumers strapped with rising fuel bills on Monday while Bush said his challenger so misunderstood the war on terror that he thought it could be reduced to “a nuisance” akin to prostitution or illegal gambling.
Both candidates campaigned in the West ahead of their third presidential debate, which will take place Wednesday night at Arizona State University in Tempe. Kerry focused on domestic issues — the subject of that debate — and criticized Bush and the Republican-led Congress for not doing more to reduce U.S. dependance on imported oil.
Bush mixed domestic policy with national security, criticizing Kerry as a tax-and-spend liberal while questioning anew the Democrat’s fitness to lead the war against terror.
Meanwhile, a new Reuters/Zogby poll showed that Kerry had expanded his lead over Bush to three points. Kerry held a 47-44 percent lead over Bush in the latest three-day tracking poll, up two points from Sunday. Bush’s support dropped one point and Kerry’s support rose one point in the new poll.
The Reuters/Zogby poll is at odds with another recent tracking survey that also includes post-debate polling. An ABC News-Washington Post poll conducted Wednesday through Saturday put Bush at 51 percent to 46 percent for Kerry, according to the Post's analysis.
At a Monday rally in Hobbs, N.M., the Republican incumbent ridiculed Kerry for saying in an interview in The New York Times Magazine, “We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives but they’re a nuisance.”
In the interview published Sunday, Kerry compared the anti-terror battle to efforts by law enforcement to root out prostitution or illegal gambling, knowing such an activity could never be ended but could be reduced to where “it isn’t threatening people’s lives every day.” He cited his experience as a former prosecutor in Massachusetts.
“I couldn’t disagree more,” Bush said. “Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of nuisance. Our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive.”
Video: 'Nuisance?' The Bush campaign also takes on the “nuisance” comment in a new television ad. And Vice President Dick Cheney, campaigning in Medford, N.J., called Kerry’s remarks “naive and dangerous.”
Phil Singer, a Kerry-Edwards spokesman, said the Republicans took Kerry’s single sentence out of context. “Considering that George Bush doesn’t think we can win the war on terror, let Osama bin Laden escape and rushed into Iraq with no plan to win the peace, it’s no surprise that his campaign is distorting every word John Kerry has ever said,” he said.
Criticism on energy legislation
Kerry criticized Bush’s efforts on energy legislation, telling a Santa Fe audience, “When it comes to developing a real energy policy, George Bush has run out of gas.”
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Kerry said record oil prices, which have propelled gasoline prices to over $2 a gallon in many places, “means a lot more profit for this president’s friends in the oil industry. But for most middle class Americans, the Bush tax increase is a tax increase that they can’t afford.”
He complained that Congress was ending “another session without passing a good energy bill for America.” Administration-backed legislation, which includes a variety of tax and other incentives to encourage more domestic energy production, has been blocked by a largely Democratic coalition of opponents.
“John Kerry’s obstruction of a national energy policy makes his current political opportunism completely hypocritical,” said Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt.
Video: 'Can't win' Kerry has proposed a trust fund for developing clean fuels, incentives for making buildings more energy-efficient and an upgrade of the nation’s electricity grids.
Kerry said he came to New Mexico “to get some clean New Mexico air, get some of that good mountain inspiration” for the debate Wednesday night. The visit also could help build support in a state where a poll taken after the first debate showed him virtually tied with Bush. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore narrowly won New Mexico.
A shot at the tax record
Across the state in Hobbs, Bush criticized Kerry’s record on taxes, health care and other domestic issues.
The president also mocked Kerry’s stance on a Bush-backed forest law that makes it easier for timber companies to cut wood from national forests. Bush argues that thinning forests helps prevent devastating fires.
“My opponent was against it. Now, he says he likes parts of the law,” Bush said. “I guess it’s not only the wildfires that shift in the wind.”
Kerry favors focusing thinning operations on the parts of fire-prone forests that pose the most immediate threat to communities. He criticizes Bush’s broader approach as a boon to big timber companies.
Bush was accompanied by daughter Jenna Bush as well as his nephew, George P. Bush, who often helps court Hispanic voters for the Bush ticket.
The Reuters/Zogby poll found six percent of likely voters are still undecided about the race with barely more than three weeks to go until the Nov. 2 election, and 16 percent of the voters who identify themselves as independents are undecided.
Bush made small gains among young voters and Kerry picked up strength among women voters ahead of the debate — the final chance for both candidates to speak directly to an audience of millions of voters.
“Wednesday’s debate is vital because many sub-groups remain close and because so many independents have yet to make up their minds,” pollster John Zogby said.
BUSH VS. KERRY: Comparing the candidates from issue-to-issue.The poll of 1,214 likely voters was taken Friday through Sunday and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percentage points. The rolling poll will continue through Nov. 1 — the day before the election.
The last two days of polling came after Bush and Kerry battered each other over Iraq, jobs and taxes during a debate on Friday. The economy and Iraq are consistently listed as the top issues in the race.
By Reuters and The Associated Press.