Bush portrays Kerry as weak leader

President criticizes Democrat for saying he'd cut troops in Iraq

Election 2004

August 13, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Keeping up his effort to portray Sen. John Kerry as ill-suited for wartime leadership, President Bush chastised his Democratic opponent last night for having said he hopes to reduce troop levels in Iraq substantially within six months of taking office.

"That says to the enemy, `Wait six months and one day,'" Bush said, sitting with his wife, Laura, for an hourlong interview on CNN's Larry King Live.

"It's very important for us not to be setting timetables," the president said. "The timetable is this: Not one day more than necessary. And the commanders on the ground will let us know when."

Aides to Kerry have said Bush and his surrogates have distorted the senator's position on U.S. troop levels in Iraq. They have stressed that Kerry has said that achieving his six-month goal would depend on broader international help in Iraq and greater stability.

Bush's comments suggest he remains determined to try to score political points against Kerry on Iraq. Since Kerry emerged as his party's standard-bearer, the White House has tried to make his views on Iraq a vulnerability, noting that Kerry voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq yet has since been vaguely critical of the war.

Kerry has held firm to the position that while he backed a war, Bush mishandled it, failing to win broad allied backing or to craft a plan for postwar peace.

Yet Kerry's standing with voters on the issue may be improving. In a Pew Research Center poll released yesterday, 46 percent of respondents said they trust Kerry over Bush to handle Iraq, up from 41 percent in May. Forty-four percent said they believe Bush would do a better job in Iraq, unchanged since May.

Bush's televised interview with King came during a campaign swing through the West.

Yesterday, Bush won the embrace of two of California's Republican icons, Nancy Reagan and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a state that remains hostile territory for the president.

At a fund-raiser that brought in $3 million for the Republican National Committee, Schwarzenegger joked that he has been working hard for Bush's campaign, saying: "I've been organizing Republicans for Bush-Cheney, I've been organizing ... bodybuilders for Bush-Cheney, I've been organizing girlie men for Bush-Cheney."

The governor, in a comment that provoked controversy during state budget negotiations this summer, mocked Democrats in Sacramento as gutless "girlie men" unable to break away from trial lawyers, unions and other special interests.

Earlier yesterday, the president and his wife stopped by the Reagan home in Los Angeles, where the former first lady said she supports Bush's re-election.

Bush said last night that he wants to stop independent advocacy groups - so-called "527s" - from being able to run ads on behalf of presidential candidates. Republicans have accused groups such as America Coming Together and MoveOn.org of pouring millions of dollars into ads on behalf of Kerry.

The president called Kerry's service in Vietnam "noble" but refused to join Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona in repudiating a new ad from an outside advocacy group that accuses Kerry of lying about his military service.

Breaking little ground, Bush reiterated his familiar positions on Iraq, the war on terror, stem-cell research and tax cuts. The Kerry campaign released a statement saying that Bush "spent an hour on TV and didn't talk about jobs or his plans to get the economy going."

The interview seemed intended, in part, to give Bush an opportunity to appear on national television with his wife, who has come to be regarded as a key asset as she has campaigned extensively for her husband. Bush joked that his wife "ought to be an issue" in the campaign, "because it shows what good judgment I have."

At one point, though, the president seemed to take issue with a suggestion from his wife, who was telling King that she thought the election would be close, as in 2000.

"We'll see," the president said, cutting into her remarks. "You are speculating here in August."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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