msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 10/18/2004 7:36:08 PM ET 2004-10-18T23:36:08

President  Bush, in one of the harshest attacks of the campaign, Monday accused Sen. John Kerry of ignoring the lessons of the Sept. 11 attacks by pursuing a “policy of weakness” that could invite disaster for the United States.

As a trio of polls showed the president appearing to gain ground on his rival, Kerry aides immediately branded Bush's speech as "fundamentally dishonest."

Little more than two weeks before Election Day, Bush lashed out at Kerry for holding fast to what he called a pre-Sept. 11 strategy that precluded pre-emptive military action, even against terrorist organizations.

“Sen. Kerry’s approach would permit a response only after America is hit,” Bush said, seizing on what he called the Massachusetts senator’s long record of showing “poor judgment on the great issues of war and peace.”

The Kerry campaign called Bush’s charges “distortions and outright falsehoods,” saying Kerry had repeatedly stated that he would not hesitate to act pre-emptively.

Bush vs. Kerry issue-by-issueBush said Kerry “has chosen the easy path of protest and defeatism” by refusing to acknowledge “progress” in Iraq, and he questioned Kerry’s commitment to democracy-building in the Middle East.

“He has not made democracy a priority of his foreign policy,” Bush said. “Is he content to watch and wait, as anger and resentment grow for more decades in the Middle East?”

Bush cited Kerry’s record from Iraq today to Nicaragua in the 1980s, where, Bush charged, “his misguided policies would have impeded the spread of freedom in Central America.”

Kerry senior adviser Joe Lockhart shot back: “This speech takes it across the line. It is now a fundamentally dishonest campaign from a fundamentally dishonest president.”

In what was billed as a major policy speech, Bush drew heavily on memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as he sought to expand the election battleground to the Democratic stronghold of New Jersey, which lost nearly 700 residents in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

“You could look across the Hudson River and see the Twin Towers burning,” Bush said, adding: “We will never forget that day.”

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He sought to portray Kerry, in contrast, as little changed by the events of that day. “A reporter recently asked Sen. Kerry how Sept. 11 changed him. He replied, ‘It didn’t change me much at all,”’ Bush told supporters.

The Kerry campaign said the quote was taken out of context. Kerry spoke about how the attacks “confirmed in me the urgency of doing the things I thought we needed to be doing.”

Video: Kerry presses president on war Bush charged that Kerry saw the war on terrorism primarily as an intelligence and law enforcement operation, and that he “declared we should not respond to threats until they are imminent.”

“Let me repeat that. He says that pre-emptive action is unwise, not only against regimes, but even against terrorists organizations,” Bush said.

“The war on terror is a real war with deadly enemies, not simply a police operation,” Bush said. “In an era of weapons of mass destruction, waiting for the threat to arrive at our doorsteps is to invite disaster.”

Long considered solid Democratic territory, New Jersey became a Republican target after statewide polls showed Kerry with a smaller-than-expected lead. Vice President Dick Cheney visited last week to test the waters for a challenge.

But Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political strategist, says New Jersey is in play in large part because of the importance voters place on fighting terrorism, an issue Bush has long dominated in the polls. 

In Florida on Monday, Kerry said that Bush sent troops into war without necessary equipment and accused the commander in chief of “arrogant boasting that he’s done everything right in Iraq.”

“Mr. President, your management or mismanagement of this war, your diversion from al-Qaida and from Osama bin Laden, your shift of the troops to Iraq when there was nothing to do with al-Qaida, nothing to do with 9/11, has made America less safe, not more secure,” Kerry said.

The Democrat’s campaign also rolled out a TV ad showing Bush saying “I truly am not that concerned about him” — a reference to Osama bin Laden. The ad seeks to make the case that “It’s time for a new direction” on Iraq and the war on terror. Bush denied in the final debate that he had ever said he wasn’t worried about Osama.

As for U.S. forces, Kerry referred to a report in The Washington Post that the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, said last winter that his supply situation was so poor that it threatened the troops’ ability to fight.

“Despite the president’s arrogant boasting that he’s done everything right in Iraq and that he’s made no mistakes, the truth is beginning to come out and it’s beginning to catch up with him,” Kerry said.

“I will never be a commander in chief who just cavalierly, ideologically and arrogantly dismisses the advice of our best military commanders in the United States.”

Meanwhile, Bush is pulling ahead of Kerry in three polls:

  • Bush leads 52-44 percent among likely voters in a Gallup Poll taken for CNN and USA Today from Thursday through Saturday, up from 49-46 after the second debate.
  • Bush leads 50-44 among likely voters in a Newsweek Poll conducted Thursday and Friday.
  • Bush leads 50-46 in a tracking poll of likely voters taken Wednesday through Saturday for ABC News, up from 48-48 in the Tuesday-Friday period.

Another poll, released Monday, found the candidates deadlocked at 45 percent each among likely voters. The Reuters/Zogby three-day tracking poll gave the president a 46-44 percent lead over the Massachusetts senator the previous day, and a four-point lead the day before that.

“This is, as I have said before, the same kind of roller-coaster ride we saw in 2000 with the lead changing back and forth and neither candidate able to open up any kind of lead,” pollster John Zogby said.

The poll of 1,211 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 Gallup Poll interviewed 1,013 adults and had a 4-point margin of error. The Newsweek Poll interviewed 1,004 registered voters and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. ABC’s poll surveyed 1,582 voters with a margin of error of 2.5 points.

While national polls such as these attempt to reflect popular sentiment among voters, the real presidential battle is the state-by-state contest for electoral votes. In that match, NBC News analysis currently has Bush winning or leading in states with 217 electoral votes while Kerry is winning or leading in states with 200 votes. The remaining states and their 121 votes are considered too close to call. A candidate needs 270 electoral votes to win.

Kerry was in Florida urging voters to take advantage of laws that let residents cast their ballots for the Nov. 2 election beginning Monday.

He said an early vote would help prevent a repeat of the nail-biting finish of 2000 that saw the election decided in a Florida recount.

“This is important. If you vote early now, we don’t have to stay up late on Tuesday night, Nov. 2,” Kerry said. “I want you to get out and get the job done.”

Kerry also laid out a prescription for avoiding another flu vaccine shortage like the one this season.

He wants manufacturers to report vaccine supplies to public health officials, encourage the donation and public buyback of surplus vaccines, establish a reserve of the inoculations and encourage more drug makers to produce the vaccine.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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