With early polls indicating a split decision in the hard-hitting debate between vice presidential candidates Dick Cheney and John Edwards, President Bush on Wednesday stepped up his criticism of rival John Kerry’s record on national security, charging the Democrat is promoting policies that would “weaken America and make the world more dangerous.”
“In less than a month, you’ll have a chance to vote for Dick Cheney and me,” Bush told cheering supporters in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. “I’m looking forward to coming down the stretch with a positive, strong message.”
Bush assailed Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry as he usually does in campaign appearances, accusing the Massachusetts senator of wavering in his support of the war on terrorism, favoring scores of tax increases, and sending mixed signals to allies and enemies.
Bush even offered an explanation for the scowls and grimaces he displayed during the presidential debate last week in Miami when Kerry criticized nearly every action the president has taken on national security, taxes, education and health care.
“You hear all that, you can understand why somebody would make a face,” the president said.
Aides to Kerry called Bush’s harsh tone a sign of desperation two days before the next debate between the White House rivals — and the day after a match-up of their running mates produced plenty of sparks but no decisive winner.
And Sen. John Edwards contended that the president was “completely out of touch with reality” about the Iraq war and the economy.
“He won’t acknowledge the mess in Iraq. All you have to do is turn your television on,” Edwards said. And, he added, “they still don’t recognize that there’s any problem with jobs and the economy” despite rising health care costs and record job losses.
“You can’t fix these problems until you recognize there is a problem,” the Democratic vice presidential nominee told a sign-waving audience in a warehouse at the Palm Beach County convention center. “They’re in denial. They’re in denial about everything.”
Bush and Kerry meet again Friday night at Washington University in St. Louis to take questions from voters in a townhall-style debate. The 90-minute event begins at 9 p.m. ET and will be Webcast live on MSNBC.com.
“The president tried to redo the debate from last week by giving a speech full of untruths he couldn’t say on stage with John Kerry because he knew Kerry would knock them down,” Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said.
Kerry was in Colorado preparing for the second debate with Bush after a Tuesday night showdown between their running mates that was full of bitter personal put-downs and sharp exchanges on Iraq.
Jabs on jobs, Iraq
In the vice presidential debate in Cleveland, Cheney and Edwards traded jabs over jobs, judgment and Iraq in what largely was a hard-fought draw.
“America saw two very different visions of our country and two different hairdos,” Bush said to laughter. “I didn’t pick my vice president for his hairdo, I picked him for his judgment, his experience.”
Cheney and Edwards headed for Florida, a battleground worth 27 electoral votes. Cheney was appearing in Tallahassee, Edwards in West Palm Beach.
The Bush camp claimed that a strong performance by Cheney helped break momentum that appeared to be going Kerry’s way, but Democrats said Edwards more than held his own.
“I thought it was another win for the Kerry-Edwards team. I thought John Edwards showed real strength, conviction, he was in command of all the facts, in control of the debate,” Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe told AP Radio on Wednesday. “I think the burden was on Dick Cheney to try and knock it out of the park. He did not do that.”
Post-debate polls were split. Cheney fared best in an ABC News poll of a Republican-leaning group of registered voters who watched the debate, with 43 percent giving Cheney the edge, while 35 percent said Edwards won. The Democrat was viewed more positively by 178 undecided voters polled by CBS News: 41 percent thought he had won and 28 percent thought Cheney had won.
The candidates, seated at a table within a few feet of each other at Case Western Reserve University, tore into each other repeatedly. Cheney, an experienced debater, and Edwards, a freshman senator from North Carolina who made millions of dollars as a trial lawyer, gave as well as they took.
Edwards accused the administration of “not being straight with the American people” about conditions in Iraq and of presiding over the biggest job losses since the Depression.
“Your facts are just wrong,” Cheney counterpunched. And at one point, he told Edwards, “Senator, frankly, you have a record in the Senate that’s not very distinguished.”