Cheney questions Kerry's toughness

Stump remarks placed in context of possibility of unprecedented attack


CINCINNATI, Ohio - Vice President Dick Cheney cast doubt yesterday on whether Sen. John Kerry was strong enough to fight terrorism and asserted that the nation might one day face terrorists "in the middle of one of our cities with deadlier weapons than have ever before been used against us," including a nuclear weapon.

As he toured southern Ohio by bus seeking to energize Republican supporters, Cheney hit hard on a central theme of the Bush campaign: that President Bush had a better grasp of the threats facing the nation and the will to stymie terrorists. As he has done repeatedly, the vice president invoked the specter of terrorists attacking an American city.

"The biggest threat we face now as a nation is the possibility of terrorists ending up in the middle of one of our cities with deadlier weapons than have ever before been used against us - biological agents or a nuclear weapon or a chemical weapon of some kind to be able to threaten the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans," Cheney said, adding, "You have to get your mind around that concept."

Cheney, seated on a stool at a forum in Carroll, Ohio, went on to list steps Bush had taken to protect the country and diminish terrorism abroad, including the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and he then cast doubt on Kerry's judgment.

"John Kerry would lead you to believe he has the same kind of view that George Bush has, that he would be tough and aggressive," Cheney said. "I don't believe it. I don't think there's any evidence to support the proposition that he would, in fact, do it."

Such remarks brought big cheers from his partisan crowds but also an instant reaction from the Kerry campaign, which said the Democratic senator had demonstrated his toughness in combat during the Vietnam War and would focus on nuclear threats posed by Iran and North Korea.

Mark Kitchens, a policy adviser to Kerry, said of Cheney in a statement, "He has the audacity to question whether a decorated combat veteran who has bled on the battlefield is tough and aggressive enough to keep America safe."

Kitchens added, "He wants to scare Americans about a possible nuclear 9/11 while the Bush administration has been on the sidelines while the nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, the world's leading sponsor of terrorism, have increased."

Campaigning in Eau Claire, Wis., Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, said: "You don't keep this country safe by giving a speech. You keep it safe by what you do."

But Cheney struck the same theme over and over throughout his bus tour through a crucial state, arguing that Bush's approach to national security had borne fruit. He cited the decision by the Libyan leader Muammar el Kadafi, five days after Saddam Hussein was captured in Iraq, to give up his country's uranium development program, which intelligence agencies had suspected was intended to produce weapons.

"He did not call the United Nations," Cheney said, referring to Kadafi. "He called George Bush and Tony Blair."

Attorney General John Ashcroft, in a speech before the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, meanwhile, suggested that divine "Providence" was partly responsible for the fact that the United States had not been attacked since Sept. 11, 2001.

"For three years, our nation has been blessed," Ashcroft said, according to a text of the speech distributed by the Justice Department. "But the hand of Providence has been assisted by the dedicated men and women of the Department of Justice. In three years, we have compiled a record of achievement that is impressive by peacetime standards."

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