Bush sharpens rhetoric in new attack on Kerry

Election 2004

October 07, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Moving swiftly to shift attention toward the next televised debate, President Bush ratcheted up criticism of his Democratic opponent, alleging yesterday that a President John Kerry "would weaken America and make the world more dangerous."

Bush all but ignored Tuesday night's face-off between the vice presidential nominees as he unloaded a tough new attack on his Democratic rival during a campaign appearance in Pennsylvania, a key state where Kerry appears to be gaining.

The 48-minute speech before an enthusiastic crowd in Wilkes-Barre was notable mainly for the tone of Bush's remarks. His comments were among his harshest to date on the Massachusetts senator, signaling an escalation in the rhetoric of the presidential campaign.

Kerry spent the day at a Colorado resort, rehearsing for tomorrow night's town hall debate in St. Louis, and had no immediate reaction to the latest attacks. Kerry aides dismissed the speech as another "desperate" debate do-over by Bush designed to rectify his failures in the first presidential forum.

There was an element of damage control in Bush's speech, in which the president made self-deprecating comments about his debate performance. But the speech more broadly resembled Kerry's successful effort in the run-up to the first debate, when he sharpened his message and framed issues in a more forceful way.

Bush, whose lead has slipped since last week's encounter, delivered a comprehensive critique of Kerry on foreign and domestic policy.

Charges and quips

He leavened the attacks with upbeat language about himself that seemed calculated to remind voters why they found him likable on a personal level when he first ran for president. With a grin and tilt of his head, Bush poked fun at his body language in last week's televised debate, which included smirks, grimaces and other facial expressions that were widely criticized.

After reeling off accusations against Kerry on the familiar theme of the senator's flip-flops on the Iraq war, Bush quipped: "You hear all that and you can understand why somebody would make a face." The crowd responded with laughter and applause.

At another point, he poked fun at his repeated use of the phrase "hard work" in the first debate, which became the butt of late-night TV jokes ridiculing the president for what some interpreted as a complaint about the difficulty of his job.

Bush contended that Kerry has little to show for a 20-year Washington career, other than the title, bestowed in a magazine ranking, as the nation's most liberal senator.

"When the competition includes Ted Kennedy, that's really saying something. ... You might even say it was `hard work,'" Bush said, to laughter from supporters.

Bush tried to turn Kerry's attacks on the administration's strained relations with traditional allies into an indictment of the Democrat's views on the United States' role in the world.

He accused Kerry of proposing "policies and doctrines that would weaken America and make the world more dangerous."

Kerry's insistence on promoting a foreign policy that wins the approval of the international community would come at the cost of protecting the country, Bush alleged.

Kerry, he said, has looked throughout his career "for every excuse to constrain America's action in the world." As president, he "would have America bend over backwards to satisfy" other governments in an alliance-building strategy that Bush described as "brush off your best friends, fawn over your critics."

"And that's no way to gain the respect of the world," Bush added.

Bush noted Kerry's comments on the campaign trail about bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq over the next four years as evidence that his rival had established "artificial timetables" for political benefit.

Kerry is sending a "signal that America's overriding goal in Iraq would be to leave, even if the job isn't done," said Bush, which complicates "the essential work we're doing in Iraq."

On the domestic side, which figures to be the subject of roughly half the questions in the next debate, Bush cast Kerry in the familiar role of a tax-and-spend Democrat.

Kerry's plan for health care reform would vastly expand the reach of government and "put us on the path to Clinton care," Bush said, a reference to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's failed effort to nationalize health insurance during her husband's first term.

With less than four weeks left in the race, the president promised to campaign on a "positive, strong message" of his own. He described himself as a "compassionate conservative," the label he used successfully in 2000 to appeal to moderate swing voters.

Bush referred only in passing to Tuesday night's vice-presidential debate in Cleveland, which remained the topic of morning-after bickering between the opposing camps.

Kerry camp attacks

Kerry's campaign released a new television attack ad that accused Vice President Dick Cheney of failing to "tell the truth on Iraq and on his financial connections to Halliburton."

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