TOLEDO, Ohio — In a stinging exchange, President Bush criticized Democratic challenger John Kerry as “the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time” on Thursday while the Massachusetts senator accused his rival of constantly ducking responsibility for his own actions.
For the fourth consecutive day, Kerry assailed Bush over the disclosure that nearly 380 tons of explosives were missing in Iraq, and said the Republican president’s attempt to compare himself to John F. Kennedy was off the mark.
“When the Bay of Pigs went sour, John Kennedy had the courage to look America in the eye and say, ‘I take responsibility, it’s my fault,” Kerry said, referring to a bungled invasion of Cuba in 1961. “John Kennedy knew how to take responsibility for the mistakes he made and Mr. President, it’s long since time for you to start taking responsibility for the mistakes you made.”
The two men raced from one Midwestern state to another in the closing days of their close, contentious campaign for the White House. The polls, ubiquitous as they were, were of little use in forecasting the outcome of the election. Over and over, they made the race out to be a statistical tie, and battleground states too close to call.
FBI launches Halliburton inquiry
On Thursday, days after the missing explosives issue surfaced, the Bush campaign faced another headwind. The FBI has begun investigating whether the Pentagon improperly awarded no-bid contracts to Halliburton Co., seeking an interview with a top Army contracting officer and collecting documents from several government offices.
The line of inquiry expands an earlier FBI investigation into whether Halliburton overcharged taxpayers for fuel in Iraq, and it elevates to a criminal matter the election-year question of whether the Bush administration showed favoritism to Vice President Dick Cheney’s former company.
FBI agents this week sought permission to interview Bunnatine Greenhouse, the Army Corps of Engineers’ chief contracting officer who went public last weekend with allegations that her agency unfairly awarded KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, no-bid contracts worth billions of dollars for work in Iraq, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Asked about the documents, Greenhouse’s lawyers said Thursday their client will cooperate but that she wants whistle-blower protection from Pentagon retaliation.
“I think it (the FBI interview request) underscores the seriousness of the misconduct, and it also demonstrates how courageous Ms. Greenhouse was for stepping forward,” said Stephen Kohn, one of her attorneys.
“The initiation of an FBI investigation into criminal misconduct will help restore public confidence,” Kohn said.
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Late Thursday, a senior U.S. law enforcement official told NBC's Pete Williams that “no one from the White House, including the vice president, are under investigation by the FBI in the Halliburton case.”
In Saginaw, Mich., Bush engaged in an unstinting attack on Kerry. “A president cannot blow in the wind,” he said of his Democratic rival.
Video: “Senator Kerry has taken a lot of different positions, but he’s rarely taken a stand,” Bush said. “Consistency is not the senator’s strong suit.”
Kerry campaigned first in Ohio, arguably the key to victory next Tuesday.
A Red Sox cap perched on his head, he recalled that last year when his campaign was struggling, a caller to a radio program said, “John Kerry won’t be president until the Red Sox win the World Series.”
“Well, we’re on our way,” he said to cheers.
Bush had his own World Series tie-in. Interviewed on ABC, Boston pitcher Curt Schilling urged viewers to vote for the president.
Kerry’s crowd was raucous, so noisy, that at one point he said, “I hope George Bush can hear that — that is the rumble of change comin’ at him.”
At a later rally in Madison, Wis., Kerry and Bruce Springsteen drew a huge crowd. Tens of thousands packed an area in the shadow of the state capitol to hear Springsteen sing “Promised Land” and “No Surrender.” The latter song has become something of a theme song for the Kerry campaign. It is played at every stop. Springsteen will appear at another rally later today on the Ohio State University campus in Columbus. He will also join Kerry on Election Eve in Cleveland.
Edwards calls for proof
Kerry has turned the issue of missing explosives into a major focus of his campaign this week, and his running mate joined in.
Sen. John Edwards, blaming President Bush for a missing cache of explosives in Iraq, on Thursday called on the Republican to show proof that he directed troops to secure the military depot near Baghdad where the material had been stored.
“If George Bush is going to have his friends out there blaming the troops, then he ought to have the evidence to go with his claim. George Bush, you need to show America the order you gave for our troops to secure these dangerous explosives,” the Democratic vice presidential candidate said in this town near Des Moines.
Comments from Giuliani
Edwards seized on comments by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on NBC’s “Today” show Thursday in which he said the troops in Iraq, not Bush, bore the responsibility for searching for the explosives.
“No matter how you try to blame it on the president, the actual responsibility for it really would be for the troops that were there. Did they search carefully enough — didn’t they search carefully enough?” Giuliani said.
Video: Brokaw interviews Kerry “John Kerry wants to pretend we do know what happened,” Giuliani told “Today.” “We don’t know what happened. The best possibility is that those explosives were gone even before the troops got there ... at least it’s an equal possibility. John Kerry hasn’t admitted that. Instead, John Kerry became an attack dog.”
Edwards told supporters at a rally at the University of Minnesota that Bush “sent his chief surrogate out to defend the fact that he didn’t do anything. And this is what Rudy did, he blamed the troops. He said they didn’t do their job. He couldn’t be more wrong.”
“Let me say this very clearly on behalf of John Kerry and myself: Our men and women in uniform did their job. George Bush didn’t do his job,” Edwards said.
Edwards added: “If you’re going to say they didn’t do their jobs, then you need to show us that order. George Bush is refusing, as he has over and over, to step up and take responsibility. Well, if he won’t take responsibility, it’s time for him to step aside and on November the 2nd, we’re going to help him with that.”
Later Thursday, Giuliani released a statement through the Bush campaign in which he said Edwards took his words out of context. “Like the president, I wholeheartedly support our troops,” Giuliani said.
Bush assails ‘disregard for facts’
Bush sought to turn the controversy to his own advantage. He said his rival was showing a “complete disregard for the facts. Senator Kerry will say anything to get elected,” the president said.
Bush’s campaign surrogates rallied to his defense.
Bush was stumping in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, in the reverse order of a Pennsylvania-Ohio-Michigan swing Wednesday that was capped by an early evening crowd of close to 20,000 at the Pontiac, Mich., Silverdome, one of the best turnouts of his campaign. Kerry was focusing on Ohio and Wisconsin before swinging south to spend Friday in Florida.
Kerry was keeping up his drumbeat of criticism over the circumstances surrounding the explosives in Iraq.
'In the hands of terrorists'
“The missing explosives could very likely be in the hands of terrorists and insurgents, who are actually attacking our forces now 80 times a day on average,” he said in Iowa on Wednesday.
The president struck back by saying the senator simply did not know what happened there.
“A political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief,” Bush told supporters Wednesday.
Kerry retorted on Thursday, “Mr. President, I agree with you.” He then recited a list of times he said Bush had been guilty of just that.
Bush seeks help from Democrats
Polls suggest Bush and Kerry are running even not only in Iowa and Michigan, but in an improbable variety of other battleground states and nationally as well. Bush pressed hard for crossover votes.
“If you’re a Democrat, and your dreams and goals are not found in the far left wing of the Democrat party, I’d be honored to have your vote,” he said at several appearances.
In Iraq, U.S. military maneuvers including stepped-up airstrikes raised the prospect of a decisive showdown with insurgents in Fallujah and neighboring Ramadi. The goal would be to restore government control for the Iraqi national elections by the end of January.
Vice President Cheney said Wednesday night in Wisconsin that the terrorists and insurgents “know once those elections are held, they’re out of business. They’ve said as much” in “communications that we’ve captured between Zarqawi and the bin Laden crowd.” Cheney was referring to terrorist mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
MSNBC: Cheney to Hawaii
Hours later, the Bush campaign told MSNBC TV that Cheney would make a trip to Honolulu, Hawaii, for what is expected to be a late-night rally on Sunday. They are making the long trip because they believe Hawaii to be a competitive state, pointing to polls showing President Bush up by a single percentage point in the Aloha State.
The campaign is not taking other events off their schedule — except sleep — to accommodate the two-hour stop in Hawaii.
“You look for your opportunities, and there's clearly an opportunity out there,” campaign spokeswoman Anne Womack said.
MSNBC's Priya David, NBC News' Jim Popkin and the Associated Press contributed to this report.