Bush sharpens attacks as dust settles

As Kerry leaves debate strong, president aims to blunt any momentum

Election 2004

October 02, 2004|By David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MANCHESTER, N.H. - With Sen. John Kerry buoyed by positive reviews for his debate performance Thursday night, President Bush hammered at his challenger yesterday, charging that his stance on the Iraq war remains muddled and that as president Kerry would subject American foreign policy to the approval of other countries.

Bush's fresh attacks came hours after he sparred head-to-head with Kerry and as a first set of polls suggested that to many of the estimated 62 million people who watched on television, Kerry out-dueled Bush. Making stops in the swing states of Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, the president seemed determined to blunt whatever momentum Kerry had gained from his performance.

Huddling with aides on Air Force One leaving Florida yesterday morning, Bush reworked the top of a speech and came out attacking the senator, point by point, for statements Kerry made in their face-off, as though the debate were still going on.

"Last night, my opponent said our troops deserve better," Bush told a crowd of thousands outside a New Hampshire ski lodge.

"They certainly deserve better than they got from Senator Kerry when he voted to send them to war, then voted against funding our troops in combat," Bush said. He added that during the debate, Kerry "said he had made a mistake in how he talked about that vote."

"The mistake wasn't what Senator Kerry said," Bush said. "The mistake was what Senator Kerry did."

Kerry, also shooting back onto the campaign trail with 32 days left before the election, appeared confident and cheerful. At a rally in Tampa, Fla., he and his aides sought to project the image of a campaign starting to regain its stride.

The senator kept up a stream of criticism of Bush's handling of Iraq and homeland security. Kerry hopes to build on his performance in the debate on foreign policy to attack Bush's policies on issues such as education and health care, on which polls show the senator holds an edge.

Kerry tried to throw the president's central critique of him as a weak and waffling politician back at Bush. At times, he even mocked the president.

"The president keeps trying to debate himself" on Iraq, Kerry told a packed stadium of supporters who sometimes stamped their feet in appreciation.

"He keeps trying to say, `Well, we don't - we don't want somebody. ... `We don't want to wilt or waver,'" Kerry said, stuttering and stammering as he quoted the president, seeming to attempt a Bush impersonation.

"Well, Mr. President," Kerry said, "nobody's talking about leaving. Nobody's talking about wilting and wavering. We're talking about winning and getting the job done right."

Quick return to trail

As the candidates resumed a feverish campaign pace after days of debate practice, their itineraries underscored where the battlegrounds remain. Kerry fought to regain footing in Florida, a state that Bush barely won in 2000 and that handed him the election.

Florida has been battered by hurricanes, and after Bush has made visits to offer sympathy and aid, he has surged ahead, according to one state poll.

Yesterday, the president came to Pennsylvania, a state Al Gore carried in 2000 but where polls show Bush and Kerry in a tight fight. Bush then flew to New Hampshire, the only New England state he was able to wrest from the Democrats in 2000. Here, polls also show Bush and Kerry running close.

Bush was introduced here and at a park in Allentown, Pa., by the popular Republican Sen. John McCain. Of the debate, McCain said Bush "showed last night why the American people have put their trust and confidence in his leadership." But McCain, also a friend to Kerry, praised the Democrat for his debate performance, too, calling the evening his "brightest moment" in weeks.

Though Bush aides dismissed suggestions that Kerry won the debate, Bush seemed to project a new sense of urgency. He also had his swagger back, beaming smiles and looking for laughs, not grimacing and scowling as he had seemed to do at times during the debate.

Speaking to crowds of loyal Republicans, Bush pounded Kerry for his suggestion during the debate that a U.S. decision on whether to launch a pre-emptive war should hinge on passing a "global test" of whether the cause is just.

In fact, Kerry asserted at the debate that a U.S. president always reserves the right to begin such a war and that he would never require the approval of other countries. Still, Bush called Kerry's "global test" remark "the most disturbing aspect of the debate." At times, Bush pounded his lectern.

"He wants our national security decisions to be subject to the approval of foreign governments," Bush said. "The president's job is not to take an international poll. The president's job is to defend the United States of America."

His audience launched into chants of "USA! USA! USA!"

Bush also ridiculed Kerry's proposal to hold a summit in which nations would discuss how to manage Iraq.

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