Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry faulted President Bush on Friday for pursuing Saddam Hussein instead of Sept. 11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, a choice Kerry contended had made defeating terrorism more difficult. Kerry laid out his own plan to combat terrorism.
“The invasion of Iraq was a profound diversion from the battle against our greatest enemy, al-Qaida,” Kerry said in a speech at Temple University. “There’s just no question about it. The president’s misjudgment, miscalculation and mismanagement of the war in Iraq all make the war on terror harder to win.”
Bush, campaigning in Wisconsin, said, “Saddam was a threat,” adding that after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, it became clear “we must take threats seriously before they materialize.... You cannot win the war on terror if you wilt when things get tough.”
But Kerry said Iraq has become a haven for terrorists since the war, and he offered a detailed strategy to contain terrorism while drawing a sharp distinction between his and the president’s views on national security.
“George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority. I would have made Osama bin Laden the priority,” Kerry said. “I will finish the job in Iraq, and I will refocus our energies on the real war on terror.”
To douse the spread of terrorism, Kerry proposed policies aimed at denying individuals and groups the ability to organize and attack. Kerry said he would build a better military and intelligence apparatus to go after enemies, deny terrorists weapons and financing, move against worldwide terrorist havens and recruitment centers, and promote freedom and democracy in Muslim nations.
The Bush-Cheney campaign said the president is already following that course. “He is copying the president’s plan at the same time he is attacking the president,” said spokesman Steve Schmidt.
While campaigning Friday in Lafayette, La., Vice President Dick Cheney told supporters, “John Kerry is trying to tear down and trash all the good that has been accomplished.”
A day earlier, Kerry told The Columbus Dispatch that the president’s actions in Iraq and elsewhere show Bush masquerading as a mainstream conservative while pursuing extremist policies.
“I don’t view these people as conservatives,” Kerry said. “I actually view them as extreme, and I think their policies have been extreme, and that extends all the way to Iraq, where this president, in my judgment, diverted the real war on terror — which was Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida — and almost obsessively moved to deal with Iraq in a way that weakened our nation, overextended our armed forces, cost us $200 billion and created a breach in our oldest alliances.”
Kerry also mentioned a blurring line between the separation of church and state and the growth of federal budget deficits.
Quick trip home to Boston
Kerry visited the Pennsylvania battleground before a quick trip home to Boston and then several days spent preparing for the presidential debates. Kerry told the Dispatch that he has to present himself “clearly, forcefully to the American people with a clear set of priorities.”
“I think a lot of people will tune in,” he said. “There are undecideds. A lot of folks will try to measure our character and our vision, so I think it’s an important moment.”
After his trip to the swing state of Wisconsin, President Bush planned a weekend break from presidential campaigning to prepare for the first of three debates with Kerry.
Bush was attending campaign rallies in Janesville and Racine in pursuit of Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes. Afterward, he was headed to his Crawford, Texas, ranch to begin cramming for next Thursday’s debate.
Wisconsin, won by Democrat Al Gore four years ago by a scant 5,708 votes, is being hotly contested by both campaigns. Polls show Bush slightly ahead in the state, which he has visited 15 times.
Mike Sheridan, president of the United Auto Workers local in Janesville, said union members would use Friday’s visit to show their support for Kerry. “I think it will fire up anti-Bush sentiment even more,” Sheridan told the Janesville Gazette.
Meanwhile, on Sunday, Kerry is scheduled to arrive in Spring Green, Wis., for several days of seclusion and preparation for the 90-minute debate, to be held in Miami, Fla., and focus on the campaign’s central issues of foreign policy and homeland security. It will be Kerry’s ninth visit to the state this year.
The last Republican presidential candidate to win Wisconsin was Ronald Reagan in 1984. But the traditionally Democratic state has grown more Republican in recent years, giving Bush’s advisers hope they can pick it up this year.