Sen. John Kerry accused President Bush of “incredible incompetence” in the war on Iraq on Monday, citing the disappearance of hundreds of tons of powerful explosives.
“My opponent has the wrong strategy for the wrong country at the wrong time,” Bush shot back as the campaign for the White House entered its final full week.
The two men clashed at a distance as Supreme Court officials disclosed that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was undergoing treatment for thyroid cancer at a military hospital in suburban Maryland.
The announcement said the 80-year-old jurist expected to return to work quickly, but the disclosure served as a reminder that the court is aging — and the next president is likely to name one or more new justices.
Bill Clinton, the last president to make a Supreme Court appointee, campaigned for Kerry in Philadelphia during the day, welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd seven weeks after undergoing heart surgery.
He accused Republicans of “trying to scare the undecided voters about John Kerry and ... trying to scare the decided voters away from the polls.”
In the campaign’s final days, Kerry and Bush stepped up their months-long disagreement over the war on terror and the invasion of Iraq.
“Every step of the way, this administration has miscalculated,” Kerry said in Dover, N.H. He spoke shortly before traveling to Philadelphia for a rally with Clinton.
Kerry said the Bush administration had “miscalculated about how to go to war, miscalculated about the numbers of troops that we would need, miscalculated about sending young Americans to war without the armor they needed, without the Humvees they needed that were armored.”
“And the incredible incompetence of this president and this administration has put our troops at risk and put this country at greater risk than we ought to be,” Kerry said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan played down the threat posed by explosives missing from the Al Qaqaa military installation . He said there was no threat of nuclear proliferation, and preferred to concentrate on weapons destroyed, not those lost.
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“We have destroyed more than 243,000 munitions,” he said. “We’ve secured another nearly 163,000 that will be destroyed.”
At the Pentagon, an official who monitors developments in Iraq said U.S.-led coalition troops had searched Al Qaqaa in the immediate aftermath of the March 2003 invasion and confirmed that the explosives were intact. Thereafter the site was not secured by U.S. forces, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Bush used his appearance to criticize Kerry. “Protest is not a policy,” when it comes to battling terrorists, he said. As he has before, he accused the four-term Massachusetts senator of belittling America’s allies in the war.
Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards, campaigning in Ohio, added, “After today, it’s hard to imagine that even they’ll continue believing things are going well.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency said about 350 metric tons of highly explosive material had disappeared in Iraq, apparently stolen because of a lack of security at governmental installations.
The central argument of Bush’s re-election campaign is that he can do a better job protecting America than Kerry, and polls show that voters trust Bush more on this issue. The Bush campaign dismissed Kerry’s criticism of the missing explosives without responding to the allegations.
Video: Clinton campaigns for Kerry Bush, in an ABC interview broadcast Monday, was asked about the possibility of a terrorist attack on the United States before the election, a threat the administration has repeatedly raised. “We don’t have actionable intelligence to say there’s an attack, and of course if we did, we’d be moving heaven and earth to stop it,” the president said.
Asked in the interview if he has considered the fact that he could lose, Bush replied, “I’m not there yet.”
Bush and Kerry are focusing their efforts on fewer than a dozen states that remain highly competitive, with both camps making last-minute scheduling decisions to reflect realities on the ground.
Monday’s focus on the war on terror includes a new television ad that closely tracks the president’s remarks. Bush accuses Kerry of not having what it takes to prosecute the anti-terror war.
Then on Tuesday, Bush plans an address on the economy. It’s an area where Kerry believes he is stronger, but Bush will contrast what he says is the economy-boosting impact of his tax cuts with a charge, denied by Kerry, that the Massachusetts senator would raise taxes on all Americans if elected. That argument would come as Bush appeared at three rallies in Wisconsin and one in Iowa.
BUSH VS. KERRY: Comparing the candidates from issue-to-issue.By Friday, Bush will shift to the topic of leadership qualities “in a very personal way, in a way he hasn’t done before,” including a recounting of how people he has met with have shaped his views of the war on terror and his presidency, said communications director Dan Bartlett.
The campaign also plans its final ad to be a rare 60 seconds long and released later in the week. It is intended to capture the president as likable and trustworthy by including “very emotional” footage of Bush talking in various settings, Bartlett said.
With only a few states left on both sides’ target lists, a now-familiar coincidence of scheduling has Bush and Kerry spending the night in the same state, the president in La Crosse, Wis., and Kerry about 200 miles away in Green Bay. Bush was also coming close to crossing paths with Edwards, who was stumping in Racine, Wis., and Dubuque, Iowa, on Monday.
- A Newsweek poll released Monday found registered voters evenly split between Bush and Kerry, with 46 percent for each. Two percent favored Ralph Nader. Among likely voters, Bush leads Kerry 48 percent to 46 percent, with Nader getting one percent. Voters are considered likely to vote this time if they’ve voted in past elections and know where their polling place is. The margin of error was plus or minus four percentage points.
- A similar survey by Time magazine got slightly different results, with Bush extending his lead over Kerry by four points since last week’s poll. Among likely voters, 51 percent supported Bush while 46 percent were for Kerry. Nader got two percent. The margin of error for registered voters was approximately plus or minus three percentage points. The margin of error for likely voters was approximately four points.
- In a Reuters/Zogby poll released Monday, Bush led Kerry 48-45 percent in the three-day tracking poll, gaining one point on Kerry from the day before.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.