Bush stumps behind Kerry in 3 key states of Southwest

Focus of campaign shifts back to handling of war in Iraq, withdrawal of troops

Election 2004

The Nation

August 12, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Opening a campaign swing through battleground states of the desert Southwest, President Bush aggressively defended his Iraq policy yesterday against John Kerry's attacks.

"I know what I'm doing when it comes to winning this war," Bush told cheering supporters in Albuquerque, N.M.

Then, with a shake of his head, he added, in an apparent swipe at his Democratic opponent, "And I'm not going to be sending mixed signals."

Spotlight on war

Iraq has once again assumed a central place in the presidential contest, with Bush and Kerry debating the war long-distance as they compete for votes in the toss-up states of New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.

Bush has, for months, accused the senator of taking inconsistent positions on the war.

This week, the Massachusetts Democrat opened himself up to fresh criticism by putting new emphasis on the need to get American forces out of Iraq.

Kerry said Monday that he hoped to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq within six months after taking office.

At a rally the next evening in Las Vegas, he stressed the need to "get the target off American troops [in Iraq], get the hand out of the pocket of the American taxpayer and get our troops home."

The senator also assailed Bush's handling of the war.

"We need the statesmanship," Kerry said. "We need the patience. We need the maturity. We need the leadership.

"We need a new state of credibility that allows us to sit down with people who have always been our allies, who also have a stake in the outcome."

Bush responded by warning that a premature drawdown of U.S. forces would encourage anti-American elements to wait for a withdrawal and would prolong efforts to bring security and democracy to Iraq.

Kerry "said he's going to substantially reduce the number of troops six months after he's the president," Bush told about 1,000 supporters in a hangar near the Albuquerque airport.

"We all want the mission to be completed as quickly as possible. But we want the mission to be completed."

Kerry, who voted for the war resolution, indicated earlier this year that he'd be open to sending more troops, if they're needed to stabilize the country. More recently, he called for a sharp reduction in U.S. forces by August 2005.

Distortion alleged

But the Kerry camp accused Bush of distorting the senator's position yesterday. Kerry has said force reduction is a goal that would depend on his ability to persuade other countries to send troops in place of American soldiers.

The latest exchanges came as Bush pursued the Democratic challenger into three hotly contested states, where Kerry drew enthusiastic, and often large, crowds over the past five days.

Bush, who made an overnight stop at his Texas ranch with Arizona Sen. John McCain, has launched an extensive mid-August pre-convention swing during a normally quiet period in a presidential election year.

"I want to win. I'm willing to work," the president told the audience here, which included a contingent of religious conservatives, several of whom told Bush they were praying for him.

Bush and Kerry's extensive campaign efforts in the desert West point up the region's importance this year. In 2000, Bush won Arizona and Nevada and lost New Mexico by just 366 votes.

This year, all three could go either way.

New Mexico, which has the largest proportion of Hispanics of any state, seems to be leaning toward Kerry.

Dead heat in Arizona

Arizona, which has voted Democratic only once in the past 14 presidential elections, is a virtual dead heat. McCain, the state's most popular politician, is lending his support to Bush, his rival in the 2000 Republican presidential contest.

The two men appeared at a rally last night in Phoenix. But it isn't clear how aggressively McCain will work for Bush in the potentially crucial closing weeks of the campaign.

Jim Pederson, the Democratic chairman in Arizona, said McCain could be a key factor in his home state "if he really gets active, if he really wears out the shoe leather" on Bush's behalf.

In Nevada, Bush is on the defensive over nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, a 90-minute drive from Las Vegas, the state's population center.

The president was embarrassed the other day when Republican Sen. John Ensign said on a local TV show that Kerry, who opposes the repository, is "better than George Bush" on the issue.

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