Bush, Kerry trade fire over cache, troops

Campaign Trail

Election 2004

October 28, 2004|By David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PONTIAC, Mich. - President Bush swung back at Sen. John Kerry yesterday for turning a missing cache of powerful explosives in Iraq into a campaign issue, saying the Democrat is making "wild charges" and demonstrating he is "not a person you want as your commander in chief."

Kerry, in turn, intensified his attacks on Bush in what he called a "growing scandal," accusing the president of arrogantly pursuing flawed policies in Iraq, hiding results from the public and evading blame when problems arise.

"What we're seeing is a White House that is dodging and bobbing and weaving, in their usual efforts to avoid responsibility," Kerry said at a rally in Sioux City, Iowa, "just as they've done every step of the way in our involvement in Iraq."

Until yesterday, Bush had refused to answer questions about 377 tons of explosives missing from a sprawling Iraqi military compound south of Baghdad. The disappearance of the explosives, which The New York Times reported Monday, has become the focus of Kerry's attacks in the final week of the presidential race.

The president's tough counter-attack came as the issue seemed to be gaining traction. Kerry's attacks have dominated campaign news this week, going to the heart of what opinion polls show is Bush's strength: His role as a leader in the war on terrorism.

Speaking at a morning rally in Pennsylvania's Amish country, Bush said the military is investigating the missing explosives, exploring the possibility they had already disappeared when U.S. forces arrived at the Iraqi base on their way to Baghdad in April 2003.

"This investigation is important, and it is ongoing," Bush said. "And a political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief."

The president said the military had "destroyed more than 400,000 tons of munitions, including weapons." He accused Kerry of "denigrating the actions of our troops and commanders in the field" by criticizing the administration for losing the explosives "without knowing the facts."

Vice President Dick Cheney echoed Bush during a stop in Florida. "In the closing days of this campaign, John Kerry is trying every which way to cover up his record of weakness on national defense," he said.

The Pentagon yesterday made available the infantry commander whose troops captured the Iraqi weapons depot where the explosives disappeared. Col. David Perkins, who led the 2nd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division, told reporters it is improbable someone could have trucked out so much material once U.S. forces arrived.

Kerry sought to counter Bush's rebuke - driven home in a new TV ad - that he was dishonoring U.S. troops, by rushing to release a spot of his own that is an audiovisual valentine to American soldiers.

The ad's narrator says, "As we see the deepening crisis and chaos in Iraq, as we choose a new commander in chief and a fresh start, we will always support and honor those who serve." The last frame is emblazoned with "Thank You."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, also reacted angrily to Bush's suggestion that Kerry had dishonored the troops.

"Our troops are in greater jeopardy because of the civilian incompetence - incompetence - of this administration," Biden told reporters in a conference call. "My kid and a lot of other kids may get their asses blown up over there because of their civilian incompetence."

Kerry also fired back at both Bush and Cheney for suggesting Kerry was denigrating U.S. troops by questioning their handling of Iraqi weapons sites. He dismissed Cheney as "the chief minister of disinformation," and addressed Bush before a crowd of 7,500 in Rochester, Minn., which is in a county that Bush won by 10 percentage points in 2000.

"Mr. President, you don't honor our troops, or protect them better, by putting them in greater danger than they ought to be," Kerry said. "The bottom line is, your administration was warned, you were put on notice, but you didn't put these explosives on a priority list."

Also hitting Bush on domestic issues, Kerry pointed to job losses and rising health care and energy costs.

"After four years in office, this president has failed middle-class families in almost every single choice that he has made," Kerry said. "He's given more to those with the most at the expense of the middle-class and of those who are struggling to get ahead. Now he's asking you to give him four more years so that he can keep up the bad work."

New polls of likely voters the three most coveted battleground states commissioned by the Los Angeles Times show Bush holding an 8 percentage point lead among likely voters in Florida, Kerry with a 6 percentage point advantage in Ohio and the two in a dead heat in Pennsylvania. The surveys were conducted from Saturday through Tuesday and has a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

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