Candidates go on the attack as polls open early

Bush, Kerry trade charges on Iraq, war on terrorism

Election 2004

October 19, 2004|By David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MARLTON, N.J. - As polls opened for early voting in Florida and three other states, President Bush tapped memories of Sept. 11 to unleash his harshest attack yet on John Kerry's foreign policy yesterday, accusing the senator of being weak-kneed and unreliable in protecting the country and fighting terrorism.

"What is his strategy, his vision, his answer?" Bush asked supporters in this Philadelphia suburb. "Is he content to watch and wait as anger and resentment grow for more decades in the Middle East, feeding more terrorism until radicals without conscience gain the weapons to kill without limit?"

Kerry counterpunched, accusing Bush of "arrogant boasting" about success in Iraq and of once saying that he was "not that concerned" about hunting down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

"The bottom line, Mr. President: Your mismanagement of the war has in fact made Iraq and America less safe and less secure than they could have been and than they should have been today," Kerry said in Tampa, Fla.

The sharp exchange came as early voting began in Florida, Colorado, Arkansas and Texas.

In Florida, where hanging chads became emblematic of the disputed 2000 election, there were some hitches. Officials have promoted early voting as a way of avoiding long lines Nov. 2, but Floridians waited more than two hours yesterday at some sites to cast ballots.

In Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale and has the state's largest number of registered voters, a computer breakdown slowed voting to a crawl at roughly half of the 14 polling places that will be open for the next two weeks. A lengthy ballot, which includes several state constitutional amendments, also made voting time-consuming for many.

Don Stickling, 40, a salesman from Lighthouse Point, complained about the line outside the public library in Pompano Beach, where dozens of voters waited up to an hour and a quarter to use one of three touch-screen machines. The Kerry supporter said he made up his mind about the presidential contest a long time ago and decided to vote early "just to get it over with."

Kerry's Florida swing was timed to coincide with the start of early voting.

"If you vote early now, we don't have to stay up late on Tuesday night, Nov. 2," he told a crowd at the Century Village retirement community in West Palm Beach.

Bush flew to Florida to campaign late in the afternoon. Aides had said that Bush would be making his attacks on Kerry more personal, more about the man than about specific policies. Indeed, while ripping Kerry's Senate record on national security, Bush accused his opponent of choosing "the easy path of protest and defeatism" and said he "flip-flopped his way to a dangerous position."

"The first presidential election since Sept. 11" comes down to a choice, Bush said. "Will we make decisions in light of Sept. 11, or continue to live in the mirage of safety that was actually a time of gathering threats?"

Bush accused Kerry of taking a lax attitude toward terrorism that is "no way to protect our country." And he scorned the senator for casting Iraq as a diversion. Bush insisted that if terrorists were not battling U.S. forces there, they would be plotting attacks elsewhere.

"Does Senator Kerry think they would be leading peaceful and productive lives?" Bush asked an audience of supporters at a recreation center.

Kerry aides said Bush distorted many of the Massachusetts Democrats' positions, including his assertion that Kerry opposes pre-emptive military strikes. In a statement, Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, called Bush's speech "one last stand to con the American people into believing that he is the only one who can fight and win the war on terrorism."

Kerry told a packed auditorium at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center that the bloody violence in Iraq shows that Bush lacked a blueprint for victory before he went against the will of much of the world and launched an invasion of Iraq that has parts of that country still mired in chaos.

In his stinging criticism of Bush's handling of Iraq, Kerry referred to a Washington Post article yesterday that quoted a letter last winter from Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez to the Pentagon that said poor supplies were threatening combat operations.

"Despite the president's arrogant boasting that he's done everything right in Iraq, and that he's made no mistakes, the truth is beginning to come out and it's beginning to catch up with him," Kerry said.

Yesterday's punches and counterpunches were not restricted to foreign policy. Before landing in New Jersey aboard Air Force One, the president in an interview with the Associated Press accused his opponent of "shameless scare tactics" by saying that Bush planned to reinstate the military draft and privatize Social Security.

Bush said the nation would be "on alert" for a possible terrorist strike before Election Day.

"We have no specific threat information on that. Otherwise, we would have let people know," Bush said. "The United States and other countries have been concerned about the possibility of an election-related terrorist strike ever since the Madrid bombings."

Julie Hirschfeld Davis reported from Tampa, Fla. Sun staff writer Paul West, who reported from Pompano Beach, contributed to this article.

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