President Bush pushed back Wednesday against Sen. John Kerry’s criticism of his handling of Iraq, saying, “I know what I’m doing when it comes to winning this war.”
Bush used an re-election rally in Albuquerque, N.M., to sharply reject a proposal from Kerry, his Democratic opponent in the presidential election, to begin to withdraw troops from Iraq within six months of taking office.
“We all want the mission to be completed as quickly as possible. But we want the mission completed,” the president said. “The mission is not going to be completed as quickly as possible if the enemy thinks we will be removing a substantial number of troops in six months.”
Military commanders should be deciding troop levels, Bush said.
“I know what I’m doing when it comes to winning this war, and I’m not going to be sending mixed signals,” he said.
Phil Singer, a spokesman for Kerry, said Bush would “say or do anything to avoid a discussion about his failed policy in Iraq.”
“One thing we know for sure is that the troops are going to be in Iraq for a lot longer under George Bush than they will be with John Kerry as president,” Singer said.
Bush’s remarks came at the start of a campaign swing through New Mexico and Arizona, two states he and Kerry have been contesting most fiercely. He lost New Mexico by just 366 votes, and Wednesday marked his eighth trip.
Kerry lobbies seniors
Kerry, trying to win the votes of senior citizens, was in Henderson, Nev., where he urged Bush to allow the sale of cheaper prescription drugs from Canada as he discussed drug prices, health care and retirement benefits.
“I call on the president to do what he should have done in the first place,” Kerry said. “I call on the president to get out of the way of Americans being able to import drugs from Canada at a lower price.”
Bush and the pharmaceutical industry have opposed legalizing drug imports based on safety concerns. The Bush administration has a task force examining the issue.
Kerry also pledged that he would not alter Social Security retirement benefits. Government studies say the system faces significant strain as the aging baby boom generation retires, and Bush wants to overhaul the system to allow personal investment accounts.
“I will never privatize Social Security, I will not cut the benefits, and I will not raise the retirement age in this country, period,” Kerry said.
Kerry was speaking to seniors in one of Nevada’s fastest-growing cities, nearing the end of a coast-to-coast tour through closely divided states. Polls show Bush and Kerry running an almost even race for the five electoral votes up for grabs in Nevada, which attracts a large number of retirees with its lower taxes and dry climate. Bush also plans to visit Nevada this week.
Bush on stem cells
Bush did not respond directly, but he did defend his decision three years ago this week to cap federal funding for stem cell studies. Nancy Reagan, a fellow Republican, has lobbied for more government funding for the research, which she says could yield a cure for Alzheimer’s disease
The president said he would not relax his policy, although he acknowledged that it was “sad” when parents believed a cure for their children’s ailments could be within reach.
“The policies I made were on the one hand trying to help as best as we can move science forward and at the same time keep an ethical balance so that we promote a culture of life,” Bush said.
“The decision I made, in my judgment, was the right decision,” he said.
After showing Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., his Texas ranch Wednesday morning, Bush headed out for a second day of campaigning with the war hero and onetime rival. McCain did not say anything at the New Mexico rally, in contrast to their trip through Florida on Tuesday, where he introduced Bush at each stop.
The two men then headed to Arizona, which Bush narrowly won in 2000. Bush spoke in one of his favorite campaign forums, which the White House bills as a town hall forum and calls “Ask President Bush.”
The event allowed fervent Bush backers to ask the president questions. But in keeping with Bush’s custom, most of the event was devoted to a speech by Bush and then to testimonials from people hand-picked by the White House extolling the virtues of his policies.
When several of Bush’s questioners predicted that he would win re-election in a landslide, Bush said he’d be happy to win narrowly. “Let’s win the thing. Let’s just win it,” he said.
Kerry campaign highlights Halliburton
The Kerry campaign, meanwhile, jumped on a Defense Department audit that found that Halliburton Co., the U.S. military’s biggest contractor in Iraq, had inadequately accounted for nearly $2 billion in charges for work in Iraq and Kuwait.
News of the audit emerged in a Wall Street Journal report Wednesday that Halliburton, which Vice President Dick Cheney ran until 2000, had inadequately accounted for more than $1.8 billion of work, representing 43 percent of the $4.2 billion that its subsidiary has billed so far for feeding and housing troops in Iraq and Kuwait.
Kerry’s campaign issued a statement Wednesday accusing Halliburton under Cheney’s leadership of “Enron-style accounting” and price-gouging. Alluding to the Olympic Games getting under way in Greece, it said Halliburton was going for a gold medal in the “Scandal Pentathlon.”