Image: President Bush, Laura Bush, and Gov. Jeb Bush.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP
President Bush, first lady Laura Bush, and Gov. Jeb Bush, arrive at a campaign rally at the City of Palms Park, in Fort Myers, Fla., on Saturday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 10/23/2004 11:39:55 AM ET 2004-10-23T15:39:55

President Bush planned to shore up his base Saturday, with four stops across Florida — all in areas that voted for him in 2000 — where he will unleash sharp campaign attacks against Democrat John Kerry on every issue from Iraq to Social Security.

Kerry, meanwhile, is continuing his push to try to win Colorado, a traditionally Republican state. On Saturday, he will campaign with state Attorney General Ken Salazar, who is running for Senate.

The Massachusetts senator hopes Salazar’s campaign will help win him votes among the state’s growing Hispanic population.

Kerry arrived in Colorado after a Friday evening rally in Reno, Nev.

Fighting words
The weekend campaigning comes after a bitter dustup on Friday about who is better equipped to protect the country from future terrorist attacks.

Kerry scoffed at Bush’s tough talk on terror and said if he had been in the White House he would have used U.S. troops to capture or kill Osama bin Laden.

Video: Election: Local issues' role “You want to talk about the war on terror, Mr. President?” Kerry asked at a campaign rally in Reno. "Let’s talk about it.”

Kerry said Bush had allowed bin Laden — whose al-Qaida group was blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States — to escape in Afghanistan by not using U.S. troops to hunt him down in the mountains of Tora Bora.

“Let’s talk about what happened when we had the world’s No. 1 terrorist, No. 1 criminal, cornered. ... What did the president do? You know what he did?” Kerry said. “He outsourced the job of capturing him. ... He gave it to Afghan warlords who only one week earlier were fighting against us.

“I would have used our military and we would have gone after and captured or killed Osama bin Laden,” he said. “That’s tough.”

Kerry rebuked Bush for diverting money and troops from the war on terror to the invasion of Iraq.

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Bush paints Kerry as wrong man for job
Bush said earlier that the choice facing voters amounts to who can keep Americans safer from terrorists and that Kerry does not measure up. Kerry’s campaign accused the president of resorting to fearmongering out of desperation as the rivals exchanged accusations across battleground states.

“All progress on every other issue depends on the safety of our citizens,” Bush told supporters in a sports arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., delivering a retooled stump speech that portrays Kerry as naive on terror and eager to raise taxes.

Kerry retorted that Bush had him wrong on both counts. “We need a president who defends America and who fights for the middle class at the same time,” Kerry said in Milwaukee, Wis. “I guarantee you I will leave no stone unturned to protect this country I love.”

Bush suggested his Democratic rival “does not understand the enemy we face and has no idea how to keep America secure.” His campaign reinforced that theme with a new television ad with chilling imagery of prowling wolves in a dense forest. “Weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm,” an announcer says.

The Kerry-Edwards campaign was quick to fire back.

“They have stooped so low now that they are using a pack of wolves running around a forest trying to scare you. This president is trying to scare America ... in a despicable and contemptible way,” Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards said in Boynton Beach, Fla.

The Democrats had their own new animal ad, portraying the Republican side as an ostrich with its head in the sand, the Democratic side as an eagle.

With just 11 days to the election, Bush campaigned in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, which account for one-fourth of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. Bush won Florida and Ohio in 2000. Pennsylvania is his top goal among Democratic-leaning states.

In the national horse race, a Reuters/Zogby three-day tracking poll released Saturday showed Bush leading Kerry 47-45 percent, a statistical dead heat that was within the poll’s margin of error. Bush had an identical 47-45 percent lead the previous day.

Slideshow: Today's political battleground

Speaking in Milwaukee on Friday, Kerry pledged to support working women and their children if elected president. He said his combination of plans to raise the minimum wage, improve education and expand health care would help women struggling to care for their families.

Kerry is seeking to energize one of the party’s traditionally strongest blocs. Four years ago 54 percent of women voted for Democrat Al Gore while 43 percent voted for Bush. An Associated Press-Ipsos survey shows Kerry with support from 55 percent of women to 40 percent for Bush this year among likely voters.

Kerry told his audience he would reverse financial and educational loses that he said women had suffered under the Republican administration. “No matter how tough it gets, no one in the White House seems to be listening,” Kerry said.

He appeared with Caroline Kennedy, who said her father always said he could not have won the presidency without Wisconsin’s support and she hoped Kerry could count on the same help.

Kerry’s overture to women came a day after he reached out to a conservative political bloc — gun owners and outdoorsmen — with a goose-hunting trip in Ohio.

Bush, focusing anew on the war on terror, reminded voters that this was the first presidential election since the Sept. 11 attacks and said the threat had not subsided. He said Kerry sees the war on terror primarily as a law enforcement and intelligence-gathering operation, a contention Kerry repeatedly denies.

Bush also spoke of differences with Kerry over what he called “the bedrock values that are so critical to our families and our future.”

In his most extensive campaign-trail remarks on the subject of abortion, Bush raised Kerry’s votes against laws on parental notification and violence against “unborn victims.”

“Here my opponent and I are miles apart,” Bush said.

The increased emphasis on cultural values underscored the importance the Bush-Cheney camp is placing in the final stretch on energizing the president’s base of support among religious conservatives.

Bush ridiculed Kerry on his goose hunting trip. “When it comes to taxes, he can run in a camouflage outfit, but he cannot hide,” Bush said. Later in Canton, Ohio, Bush uttered a slightly different version: “He can run — he can even run in camo — but he can’t hide.”

In other campaign-related developments:

  • The Labor Department reported that unemployment declined last month in six key battleground states where polls show the race essentially is tied: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, New Mexico, New Hampshire and Nevada. The jobless rate rose in two other states in that category: Wisconsin and Iowa.
  • Vice President Dick Cheney told a rally in Rosemont, Minn., that Kerry offers “a record of weakness and a strategy of retreat” on national security.
  • First lady Laura Bush told a West Allis, Wis., audience her husband “understands the threat we face today” and deserves a second term. It was her last solo speech. She and daughter Jenna were joining the president and their other daughter Barbara in Ohio.
  • Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., disagreed with Bush that Kerry had “a fundamental misunderstanding” of the war in Iraq but said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show that Bush was better qualified to lead the war on terrorism, “the transcendent issue of our time.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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