Bush aims to redirect focus on stump amid Kerry gains

He plans sharper critique as foe seizes on remarks about Iraq troop strength

October 06, 2004|By Matea Gold and Edwin Chen | Matea Gold and Edwin Chen,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - President Bush, facing a new report on Saddam Hussein's weapons programs, criticism from the former civilian administrator for Iraq and new attacks from Sen. John Kerry, will aim to redirect the campaign debate today as he gives an abruptly scheduled speech in Pennsylvania on terrorism and the economy.

The last-minute schedule change was made as Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president, has gained in some public opinion surveys after last week's presidential debate.

The Bush campaign has long argued that Kerry has "flip-flopped" on support for the Iraq war, the USA Patriot Act and the No Child Left Behind education law, among other issues. But Bush is expected to argue today that Kerry's alleged vacillating has ultimately landed him in the wrong place on many policies, said a senior Republican strategist familiar with White House thinking.

The speech was still subject to late changes, but the president planned to offer a sharper critique of his opponent's policy positions with the goal of shifting the campaign focus away from Bush and back onto Kerry, the strategist said. "It's a pivot away from `flip-flop' to the content of Kerry's record, both on foreign policy and domestic policy," the strategist said.

Bush's speech also comes as the White House is seeking to put its cast on developments that have raised new questions about the administration's record regarding Iraq. Yesterday, Kerry seized on the news that L. Paul Bremer III, the Bush administration's former civilian administrator for Iraq, told private audiences that the United States, after deposing Hussein's regime in Iraq, did not send enough troops there to establish security and end looting.

"We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness," Bremer said Monday at an insurance conference in West Virginia. "We never had enough troops on the ground."

Bremer's comments were first reported by The Washington Post.

Kerry repeatedly has said that Bush failed to send enough troops to Iraq and that he "rushed to war without planning for what happens afterward." Yesterday, he pointed to Bremer's comments to boost his argument.

"For weeks, I've been asking the president of the United States to level with the American people and to be candid about the situation in Iraq and about what we face," Kerry told reporters outside a middle school in Tipton, Iowa.

"Maybe he's simply unwilling to face the truth and to share it with the American people. But the president's stubbornness has prevented him from seeing each step of the way the difficulties, and the ways in which we best protect our troops and best accomplish this mission," Kerry said.

The White House and the Bush campaign deflected questions about Bremer's statements, saying that the president always looked to his military commanders and to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld on troop needs.

Rumsfeld ignited another brush fire Monday, saying he knew of no "strong, hard evidence" linking al-Qaida and Hussein. He later backed off the statement and said he was misunderstood.

The president's speech today in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., comes on the same day a report will be made public by the senior U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq that is expected to give both Bush and Kerry material to fuel their campaigns.

Officials have said the report will say that arms inspectors found no evidence that Baghdad produced chemical or biological weapons after 1991 or resumed its nuclear arms program. Those conclusions could allow Kerry to argue that Bush's rationale for invading Iraq is further discredited.

But the report, by Charles A. Duelfer, head of the CIA-run Iraq Survey Group, also is expected to note indications that Hussein intended to resume illicit weapons programs if freed from United Nations inspections and trade sanctions - allowing Bush to argue that the former dictator was indeed a threat.

Kerry also disputed Bush's oft-repeated contention that Kerry, as a senator, had access to the same intelligence that the president did before the war. Kerry pointed to a recent report in The New York Times that the administration did not reveal doubts about some of its prewar intelligence.

He said the administration "presented to the American people evidence of the intelligence of this alleged nuclear program ... as a `slam-dunk.' That's how they presented to us - not, as we are now learning, as this highly controversial, highly questioned, very skeptical presentation that we're now learning about."

The Associated Press contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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