Bush, Kerry clash over national security

Candidates exchange declarations on which could keep country safer

Election 2004

October 21, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene | Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WATERLOO, Iowa - John Kerry, struggling to cut into Bush's advantage among voters on security issues, launched a broadside yesterday against the president's handling of the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism.

"The president's failures in Iraq have made us weaker - not stronger - in the war on terrorism," Kerry said in 57-minute indictment of Bush's policies here. "That is the hard truth that America needs to consider in these next days."

Bush, campaigning 90 miles north of here in Mason City, countered, criticizing Kerry's "dangerous thinking" about protecting the nation.

"The security of our country is at risk in ways different from any we have before faced," the president said at the North Iowa Fairgrounds. "The next commander in chief must lead us to victory in this war, and you cannot lead a war when you don't believe you're fighting one."

Bush was referring to published comments by Kerry adviser Richard C. Holbrooke, a possible secretary of state in a Kerry administration, who called the "war on terror" a metaphor comparable to "the war on poverty."

The president spent his day flying from one rural community to another in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The three states, which Al Gore won in 2000, offer a combined 27 electoral votes - the same as Florida.

As Bush and Kerry clashed over foreign policy, Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, caused a stir by telling USA Today she didn't know whether Laura Bush had ever held "a real job."

Heinz Kerry later apologized for having forgotten the first lady worked for nine years as a schoolteacher and librarian before marrying George W. Bush.

The Bush campaign pounced on Heinz Kerry's remarks. The president's adviser, Karen Hughes, said they reflected an "unfortunate mindset that seeks to divide women based on whether you work at home or whether you work outside the home." And the apology, Hughes told CNN, showed Heinz Kerry "seems to have forgotten that being a mother is a real job."

The spat played into a Bush strategy for the campaign's homestretch of portraying the senator and his team as negative and personal in their tactics.

Kerry, who has been focusing heavily on domestic issues in an effort to sway undecided voters, addressed national security here in hopes of cutting Bush's advantage on those issues and presenting himself as a credible alternative to the president.

Bush "claims that Iraq is the centerpiece of the war on terror," Kerry told supporters in the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center here. "In fact, Iraq was a profound diversion from that war and the battle against the enemy."

Kerry laid out his plans for improving the situation in Iraq - including bringing in other countries to help stabilize that nation and speeding up the training of Iraqi security forces - and said he would bolster anti-terrorism efforts and homeland security.

"This president says he's a leader. Well, Mr. President, look behind you. There's hardly anyone there," Kerry said.

Bush's choice to exclude countries that declined to participate in the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq from winning reconstruction contracts was a "schoolyard decision," he said.

"You learn more in elementary and high school than they seem to have applied in the conduct of this war," the senator said.

Kerry was flanked by retired military leaders and Kristen Breitweiser, the high-profile widow of a man killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all of whom have endorsed the Democrat. Kerry has used Breitweiser in a powerful ad in which she says, "I want to look in my daughter's eyes and know that she is safe, and that is why I am voting for John Kerry."

The Kerry campaign also accused Bush yesterday of sending National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on campaign trips to battleground states.

"This White House has a greater commitment to its political security than to our national security," Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, said in a statement.

Rice has traveled since Labor Day to North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon and Washington, and she has plans to speak in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida. Her speeches warn broadly of the danger of alternatives to Bush's strategy in fighting terrorism, but they do not mention Kerry by name.

"She has given speeches across the country when she's been invited to places," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said. An aide said the Bush campaign has not funded Rice's trips.

Yesterday in Iowa, Bush for the first time noted that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist behind many of the attacks and kidnappings in Iraq, recently pledged loyalty to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden. He tried to use the possible connection to blast Kerry for saying Iraq is not a central part of the anti-terror campaign.

"You cannot lead our nation to decisive victory on which the security of every American family depends if you do not see the true dangers of a post-September the 11th world," Bush said.

The senator, who has been tagged by Bush and his campaign as a weak liberal who wants to check with other nations before protecting his own, sought to put that image to rest.

"I will be resolute in confronting the evil that exists in the world," he said. "I will never hesitate to use force to defeat any threat. I will never give any nation or any organization a veto over our national security. I will build and lead strong alliances."

David L. Greene reported from Mason City.

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