Candidates react to bin Laden tape

Bush lashes out at Kerry over statements as both vow to defeat terrorism

Election 2004

October 30, 2004|By David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis | David L. Greene and Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLUMBUS, Ohio - The late-afternoon release of a new videotape from terrorist leader Osama bin Laden threw an unpredictable element into the tight presidential race yesterday, just four days before voters go to the polls, and sent President Bush and Sen. John Kerry scrambling to respond on a day when they had hoped to encapsulate the central messages of their campaigns for voters.

In the moments after the tape was broadcast, both candidates rushed to make strong statements declaring their determination to conquer terrorists. But the high-minded tone did not last long.

Bush lashed out at Kerry for making what the president called "especially shameful" accusations - specifically, Kerry's remarks in a TV interview after the tape surfaced that Bush allowed bin Laden to escape from the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan.

Bush said at a rally here that intelligence gathered at the time placed bin Laden "in any of several different countries," and that Kerry's comments were "especially shameful in light of a new tape from America's enemy."

But the Kerry campaign countered late last night that it was Bush whose behavior was "shameful." Kerry senior advisor Joe Lockhart said in a statement that the president had been briefed "at length" yesterday morning about the tape's contents, then delivered "very personal and negative attacks" on the senator on national security issues.

"It's shameful for this [president] and White House to deal with a threat so grave to this country ... as part of their overall political strategy," Lockhart said.

Kerry's comments that drew Bush's ire came in an interview he taped after he had been briefed about the existence of the bin Laden tape but before he had been told of its contents. Kerry was asked about bin Laden's assertion that the outcome of Tuesday's presidential election did not matter.

"Terrorism is going to be hunted down and killed. We are united on that. I believe I can run a more effective war on terror than George Bush. But we are united in our determination to hunt down and kill the terrorists," Kerry said, according to a transcript. "And I regret that when George Bush had the opportunity in Afghanistan at Tora Bora, he didn't choose to use American forces to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden. He outsourced the job to Afghan warlords. I would never have done that."

The president's surrogates swung into action, trying to portray Kerry as determined to use the tape for political gain.

"This was an interview minutes after he [Kerry] had made his statement to the country, and he launched right back into the same discredited attacks," said Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director. Kerry "had an opportunity to take the high road, and he chose not to."

The TV interview actually was taped before Kerry made his public statement, his aides said.

"You'd think that there would be maybe 12 hours to let the American people absorb what has just happened today," Bartlett added.

Sniping over the bin Laden tape overshadowed efforts that both candidates had made yesterday to tone down their attacks and try to connect with voters on broad themes.

Bush began the day in Manchester, N.H., by reminding voters of the horror of Sept. 11, 2001, standing with victims' relatives who gathered behind the lectern. Bush said Americans have "shown patience and purpose in the hard tasks of history" since the attacks.

Kerry, campaigning in Florida, used populist rhetoric to portray himself as a champion for the middle class while issuing a sweeping indictment of Bush's economic policies and his handling of the war in Iraq.

Both turned to star power in the evening, with Bush sharing the stage with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger here and Kerry stumping for the second day with Bruce Springsteen.

Bush's speech in Manchester was interrupted by confetti set off at the wrong time - and just as he was trying to strike a somber tone on the Sept. 11 attacks. And Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, who was supposed to campaign with Bush all morning, abruptly switched gears and decided not to show.

Yesterday featured the president's most unabashed use of the Sept. 11 attacks in a political setting. Although Bush struck similar themes in his Republican convention speech in New York, aides said he wanted to strike a personal tone, reflecting on the tragedy's impact on his presidency and the country.

Kerry, sprinkling his remarks in Orlando with inspirational turns of phrase and invoking the legacies of John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt, said Bush has led the nation astray.

Davis, traveling with Kerry, reported from Florida.

The trail

President Bush will visit Grand Rapids, Mich.; Ashwaubenon, Wis.; Minneapolis; and Orlando, Fla.

Sen. John Kerry will visit Appleton, Wis.; Des Moines, Iowa; and Warren, Ohio; and will spend the night in Dayton, Ohio.

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