President Bush and Democratic Sen. John Kerry traded sharp accusations on national security Tuesday, a day that brought more bad news for the president, including the rising cost of the Iraq war, slumping consumer confidence numbers and criticism from Iraq's interim prime minister, who accused the U.S.-led coalition of “negligence” in a deadly weekend ambush of Iraqi soldiers.
One week before the Nov. 2 election, both candidates stayed on the offensive.
Behind the scenes, both campaigns tweaked their stump speeches, advertising strategies and get-out-the-vote drives. Wisconsin, which Bush narrowly lost to Democrat Al Gore in 2000, is one of about 10 swing states likely to decide the winner of the White House. Polls show Bush and Kerry running neck and neck there. In addition to Wisconsin, Bush visited Iowa while Kerry traveled to Nevada and New Mexico — all tossup states.
Kerry, who has taken months of criticism by Republicans on his fitness to lead America in dangerous times, said Bush had "failed in his fundamental obligation as commander in chief to make America as safe and secure as we should be.”
He accused Bush of trying to hide until after the election the news that 380 tons of powerful explosives disappeared from an Iraqi military installation after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
Citing reports Bush that would seek up to $75 billion more in emergency funds to pay for the war after the election, Kerry said there was a pattern of deception on Iraq from an administration that refused to admit its mistakes.
“Mr. President, what else are you being silent about? What else are you keeping from the American people? How much more will the American people have to pay?” he asked.
He called Vice President Dick Cheney “out of touch” for describing Iraq as “a remarkable success story” despite continuous bad news from Iraq, including attacks on U.S. troops, the murder of Iraqi policemen, kidnappings and beheadings.
“They don’t see it, they don’t get it, they can’t fix it,” he said. “I can and I will.”
Criticism of the U.S. performance in Iraq also came from an unlikely quarter, Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, an ally of the Bush administration. He said the U.S.-led coalition was responsible for “great negligence” in the Saturday ambush by insurgents who killed about 50 Iraqi soldiers.
Bush: Kerry ‘consistently wrong’
Bush, at a rally in Onalaska, Wis., renewed his questions about Kerry’s ability to fight the war on terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, suggesting Kerry wavered under political pressure.
He said Kerry did not have the vision or backbone to lead the United States in Iraq or against al-Qaida.
“On the largest national security issues of our time, he has been consistently wrong,” Bush said, citing Kerry’s opposition to the 1991 Gulf War and saying Kerry opposed former President Reagan’s stance against the Soviet Union.
“History has shown that Senator Kerry was right, then wrong, then briefly right, then wrong again,” Bush said.
“Even when you might not agree with me, you know where I stand, what I believe and what I intend to do. On good days and on bad days, whether the polls are up or the polls are down, I am determined to win this war on terror,” Bush said.
Kerry tax pledge assailed
Bush also attacked Kerry’s pledge to raise taxes on Americans making more than $200,000 a year, saying it would hurt small-business owners and entrepreneurs.
“I understand if you create the demand for goods and services and provide incentives for investment, the economy grows,” he said, calling it a “difference of philosophy” from Kerry's.
“My opponent believes the economy grows by growing the size of the federal government,” Bush told supporters. “I believe the economy grows by growing the size of the coffers of small businesses.”
The Consumer Confidence Index figure for October was released, showing a steeper-than-expected drop and the third straight monthly decline. Economists closely track consumer confidence because consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of all U.S. economic activity.
Later, in Nevada, Kerry appealed in both Spanish and English to undecided voters. “We’re in a bigger mess by the day and the president can’t see it or can’t admit it, but either way, America is less safe,” he said.
Bush made a direct pitch to wavering Democrats, particularly moderates unsure about Kerry.
“If you believe America should lead with strength and purpose and confidence and resolve, I’d be honored to have your support and I’m asking for your vote,” he said.
In a gesture of moderation aimed at the same voters, Bush told ABC-TV he supported civil unions for homosexual couples “if that’s what a state chooses to do.” The remark upset some conservatives who not only want to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage, as does Bush, but also would bar state approval of gay civil unions.
Campaign pitches varied from deadly serious to almost silly. A radio ad reminded Wisconsin voters that Kerry got the name of their beloved Green Bay Packers’ football stadium wrong. Kerry recruited rocker Bruce Springsteen to play at his rallies.
Latest tracking poll
Bush holds a three-point lead over Kerry one week before the Nov. 2 presidential election, according to a Reuters/Zombie poll released on Tuesday.
Bush led Kerry 49-46 percent in the latest three-day national tracking poll. Bush led Kerry 48-45 percent the day before.
With the campaign winding down, the poll added voters leaning toward either Bush or Kerry into their totals for the first time. That left only about 3 percent of likely voters undecided.
“If Kerry, as suggested, is looking to undecideds, look again — there may not be enough left,” pollster John Zombie said.