NBC News and news services
updated 10/20/2004 7:32:03 PM ET 2004-10-20T23:32:03

Sen. John Kerry and President Bush turned from domestic policy to the war in Iraq and terrorism, exchanging sharp attacks as they continued their campaign barnstorming in Midwest battleground states Wednesday.

Kerry questioned whether Bush is the exemplary leader he claims to be, pointing to the war as evidence that he is not.

“Mr. President, look behind you. There’s hardly anyone there. It’s not leadership if we haven’t built the strongest alliance possible and if America is almost alone,” Kerry said to supporters in Waterloo.

Kerry also promised to reverse mistakes he says Bush made in Iraq, and he said that “the president’s failures in Iraq have made us weaker, not stronger, in the war on terrorism.”

Video: Seeking women's votes in Midwest But Bush countered that Kerry’s views on national security are so misguided that the Democrat would be unable to defeat terrorism.

“The next commander in chief must lead us to victory in this war, and you cannot win a war when you don’t believe you’re fighting one,” Bush told hundreds of supporters in the northern Iowa farming community of Mason City.

“My opponent also misunderstands our battle against insurgents and terrorists in Iraq, calling Iraq ‘a diversion from the war on terror,”’ Bush added.

Bush criticized a recent comment by Kerry that the events of Sept. 11 hadn’t changed him much and a comment by Kerry’s top foreign policy adviser that the nation is not in a war on terror in a literal sense.

The Kerry campaign is guilty of “a fundamental misunderstanding of the war we face, and that is very dangerous thinking,” the president said.

Bush said the case of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is engaging in beheadings of Americans in Iraq and has pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden, “shows how wrong” Kerry’s thinking is.

Video: Bush: Kerry's wrong on terrorism war “If Zarqawi and his associates were not busy fighting American forces, does Sen. Kerry think he would be leading a productive and useful life?” asked Bush. “Of course not. And that is why Iraq is no diversion.”

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In addition to Iowa, which polls show to be deadlocked, Bush was stumping Wednesday in the battleground states of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Kerry was to spend time in Pennsylvania and Ohio, two more hotly contested electoral prizes.

In Eau Claire, Wisc., the Bush camp denied comments on CNN from Christian evangelist Pat Robertson that Bush had told him before the Iraq war there would be no casualties.

“I warned him about this war. ... And I was trying to say, 'Mr. President, you’d better prepare the American people for casualties,'” Robertson said on Tuesday night.

Bush campaign senior adviser Karen Hughes said Bush adviser Karl Rove was at the Feb. 10, 2003, Nashville meeting and that Robertson’s recounting of their conversation “did not happen.”

“I think he (Robertson) either misunderstood, misheard, or (had) been confused about what the conversation was,” Hughes said.

The focus on foreign policy came a day after Bush and Kerry traded attacks on domestic issues.

Kerry criticized Bush over the nation’s shortage of flu vaccine and said the president had presided over a four-year “all-out assault” on Social Security. The four-term Massachusetts senator said the vaccine shortage was a result of a “failure of leadership” by the man in the White House.

But Bush blamed the vaccine problem on a “major manufacturing defect,” and his campaign said that Kerry’s comments on Social Security were “scare tactics and grasping rhetoric.”

Meanwhile, a new tracking poll published Wednesday underscored the results of a series of national polls — including the latest one from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal — that, by every measure, the race remains too close to call.

Bush vs. Kerry issue-by-issueThe Reuters/Zogby three-day tracking poll showed that for the third straight day the candidates remained knotted, with each supported by 46 percent of likely voters. The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percent, said 6 percent of likely voters remain undecided with less than two weeks remaining until the Nov. 2 election.

In other news from the campaign trail Wednesday:

  • Kerry running mate Sen. John Edwards called the Bush administration incompetent and hypocritical after Vice President Dick Cheney suggested Tuesday that an American city could be the target of a nuclear attack and John Kerry was not up to heading it off. Edwards told about 1,500 people packed into Canton, Ohio’s civic center that a Kerry administration would protect the United States. A day earlier, in Carroll, Ohio, Cheney defended President Bush’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks and questioned whether Kerry would do as well. Edwards called the comments “the height of hypocrisy … coming from a president and a vice president who have been completely incompetent in dealing with the situation in Iraq.”
  • The Kerry campaign announced that former President Bill Clinton would join the Democratic nominee on the campaign trail in Philadelphia on Monday.
  • Campaign finance data showed that Bush burned through more than half of his $75 million government grant to cover general-election campaign costs in September, leaving him with just under $37 million left for the final month before the Nov. 2 election.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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