GREEN BAY, Wis. - Sen. John Kerry slammed President Bush again yesterday for his handling of the Iraq war, saying he "failed in his fundamental obligation as commander in chief" and endangered Americans by neglecting to plan adequately for the mission.
Kerry sharpened his attacks, using a new report by the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency about the disappearance of powerful explosives from an Iraqi site that U.S. troops were supposed to secure.
"Despite devastating evidence that his administration's failure here has put our troops and our citizens in greater danger, George Bush has not offered a single word of explanation," Kerry said in a speech here. "His silence confirms what I have been saying for months: President Bush rushed to war without a plan to win the peace."
Bush said nothing publicly on the explosives, but Vice President Dick Cheney responded at a campaign event in Pensacola, Fla. "It is not at all clear that those explosives were even at the facility when our troops arrived," he said.
Little is clear about when and how 380 tons of extremely powerful explosives known as HMX and RDX disappeared from Iraq's huge Al-Qaqaa complex. While the White House suggests that the explosives might have been looted before the American military arrived in April 2003, U.S. officials have acknowledged that there were not enough troops to secure all the Iraqi munitions sites and an NBC News staff member embedded with an Army brigade that stopped at the site en route to Baghdad said the soldiers did not conduct a search.
Seeking to deflect Kerry's comments, Cheney focused on 400,000 tons of Iraqi munitions he said the military had successfully secured. "Senator Kerry is playing armchair general and not doing a very good job of it," he said.
As Kerry and Bush zigzagged across battleground states in efforts to fire up supporters and court undecided voters, campaign aides kept up a vicious backstage duel over the missing explosives.
Kerry used every opportunity to bash the president on a revelation his aides believe could turn voters against Bush at a critical time. The senator accused Bush of trying to cover up the disappearance, and suggested he may be hiding information about the war.
"Mr. President, what else are you being silent about? What else are you keeping from the American people? How much more will the American people have to pay?" Kerry asked.
Kerry's harsh words came as he is trying to project an upbeat, hopeful message aimed at persuading undecided voters that he has fresh ideas for solving the nation's problems. But that theme has been largely eclipsed as the campaigns trade volleys on security issues.
Kerry focused yesterday on convincing listeners of an argument he has begun making in increasingly ominous terms: Bush's choices are not only wrong but dangerous. Three times during his speech, Kerry said: "When a commander in chief makes the wrong decision, America's security pays the price."
The Kerry campaign released a hastily produced television ad in which the senator suggests a tie between the missing explosives and the steady stream of deadly violence in Iraq. Kerry says in the ad: "George Bush has overextended our troops and now failed to secure 380 tons of deadly explosives - the kind used for attacks in Iraq and for terrorist bombings."
Later in the day, Kerry rallied supporters in Nevada, where polls show Bush leading, then went to New Mexico, where the race is virtually tied.
Meanwhile, Bush tried to stay above the fray and present a positive face, focusing on the economy during a Wisconsin bus tour. The president was courting swing voters near the Mississippi River in a state that he lost by a narrow margin in 2000 but where he is running strongly this year.
Bush accused Kerry of planning to raise taxes and rob small businesses that file taxes as individuals. "We're not going to go back to the days of tax and spend," Bush said in Richland Center. "That's not an economic policy, that's a way to get in your wallet and grow the size of the federal government."
Bush later posed what he called "the fundamental question in this campaign: Who's got the best strategy to make sure the entrepreneurial spirit is strong? Who understands and who can best make sure that more small businesses grow in America?"
Aides said Bush would deliver a speech Friday reflecting on his time as commander in chief, in hopes of connecting personally with voters just a few days before they go to the polls.
"He'll talk in very personal terms," said Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, "about how he views this war and what we need to do to win the war on terror, through the eyes of people he's met with and who have shaped his experiences as president."
Bush advisers said the campaign is targeting counties where Bush finished behind four years ago but where voters historically swing unpredictably.
"If you had to pick one part of the state that has greater propensity from election to election to swing widely from one party to another, it's the Mississippi River counties," said Bush's senior political adviser, Karl Rove.
David L. Greene, traveling with the Bush campaign, reported from Richland Center.