War tops Bush's remarks

Rally: Calling Kerry indecisive, the president says the invasion was `right for America.'

Election 2004 -- Race For President

September 07, 2004|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. - President Bush celebrated Labor Day in the heartland, enjoying a lead in the polls over Democrat John Kerry as he marches into the final eight weeks of tough campaigning to try to keep his job.

Speaking in the rain to a crowd of about 20,000 supporters in a city park in southeast Missouri, Bush said he harbors "no doubt" that he will win in November. Then, on a day when seven Marines died in Iraq, he delivered an aggressive defense of his decision to go to war and criticized his opponent for what he described as waffling on a matter of national security.

"No matter how many times Senator Kerry changes his mind," Bush said, "it was right for America, and it's right for America now, that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power."

The president chose a key battleground state to mark a holiday that traditionally serves as the beginning of the campaign's final push. Only once in the last century has a presidential candidate won without carrying Missouri.

And according to a new Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll released yesterday, Bush is well-positioned for the race. He holds a 52 percent to 45 percent advantage over Kerry among likely voters. Ralph Nader received 1 percent, and 2 percent of respondents remained undecided.

The new numbers give Bush his first lead outside the Gallup poll's 3.5-point margin of error since spring, though they also suggest Bush received one of the smallest convention bounces in history for an incumbent, just 2 percentage points. Two polls conducted during the convention for Time and Newsweek had given him a larger edge.

Bush took his campaign yesterday to a Missouri town so remote that he arrived by helicopter because Air Force One had to land 90 miles away in Arkansas. The president acknowledged the determined work of a Poplar Bluff resident named Hardy Billington who collected 10,000 signatures and put up billboards urging Bush to make a trip here.

"I get a lot of invitations," Bush said. "I've never got one with 10,000 signatures." In this town of 17,000 people, an impoverished community of farmers and laborers where religion runs deep, Bush was able to pack throngs of exuberant supporters into a park.

The Bush campaign had initially billed the event as a speech on the economy and small business. But Bush dedicated most of his remarks before the flag-waving audience to Iraq. The president made that decision a day after Kerry tried to shift the focus of the campaign to job losses, criticizing the Bush administration for presiding over a net loss of 1 million jobs.

On the offensive against Kerry, Bush criticized the senator for voting against an $87 billion bill to fund the troops in Iraq.

Kerry explained his vote at the time by saying that he did not believe Bush would effectively manage $20 billion of the money earmarked for reconstruction, predicting that a "lion's share" of it would go to companies with ties to the administration, such as Halliburton. He has since pointed out that he would have supported the bill if it had included an amendment taking money from Bush's tax cuts to pay for it.

Yesterday, Kerry said that among many wrong choices made by Bush, "the most catastrophic one is the mess in Iraq."

In his speech, Bush responded, "After voting for the war, but against funding it, after saying he would have voted for the war knowing everything we know today, my opponent woke up this morning with new campaign advisers and yet another new position."

Bush defended his position on Iraq on one of the bloodiest days for U.S. troops in recent months. The seven Marines who died in a car bomb attack near Fallujah brought the death toll for American troops in Iraq to 990 since the war began in March last year.

The newly released Gallup poll, conducted Friday through Sunday, reflects a boost Bush seemed to receive from his convention in New York, which was deemed by officials in both parties as a success. Before the convention, Bush was ahead of Kerry in the Gallup poll, 50 percent to 47 percent.

But the president's 2-point convention bounce is well below the 6-point average bounce in the Gallup poll for incumbents after their conventions.

Bush's gain is smaller than the 5-point bounce his father saw in 1988 and the 5-point bounce Bill Clinton enjoyed in 1996.

The poll numbers underscore the divided country and how close the election may still be, despite whatever gains Bush enjoyed from his party's gala.

"We expected it to tighten, and this is going to be a horse race," said Danny Diaz, a Bush campaign spokesman traveling with the president.

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