Tape's release jars deadlocked race

Bush keeps up attacks on Kerry

senator doesn't back off central argument

Election 2004

October 31, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene | Julie Hirschfeld Davis and David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

APPLETON, Wis. - Sen. John Kerry harshly criticized President Bush yesterday for failing to snare Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, determined not to back down from a central argument in his campaign even after the emergence of a new videotape from the al-Qaida leader.

During campaign stops neither candidate specifically mentioned the bin Laden tape, though Bush told a TV interviewer on Air Force One that if the terrorist leader were trying to influence the election, he would not succeed.

The tape's release Friday jarred the deadlocked presidential race, and it was clear that the unexpected appearance of the mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks weighed heavily on both campaigns.

Earlier in the day, Bush huddled privately, in person and by video conference, with his homeland security advisers to discuss the tape and instruct them to take any action necessary to respond. The Bush campaign strategy was clear: to let voters to see Bush as presidential and concerned about the words from the terrorist leader.

Brushing aside the president's bitter accusations Friday that the he was playing "shameful" politics with terrorism, Kerry went after Bush for what he has said was one of the gravest errors of his presidency.

"When Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida were cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, it was wrong to outsource the job of capturing them to Afghan warlords," Kerry said, using one of his stock lines against Bush. "It was wrong to divert our forces from Afghanistan so that we could rush to war in Iraq without a plan to win the peace."

Bush has said that intelligence at the time placed bin Laden in any of several locations - not necessarily in the mountain pass Kerry references in his speeches.

Kerry worked to appear above the partisan fray as well, even as he took Bush to task for missing what the Massachusetts senator has described as a ripe opportunity to capture the al-Qaida leader.

Kerry, who often tells campaign audiences that he will conquer terrorists, added some new language yesterday to his stump speech, declaring the country united in that effort and specifically mentioning a desire to target bin Laden.

"Let nobody doubt we are united as Americans - there's no Democrat, there's no Republican, we are all Americans - and all united in our determination to seek out and destroy Osama bin Laden and the other terrorists. They are barbarians, and we are going to hunt them down, find them, and do whatever it takes to make America safe," Kerry said at a rally at the foot of the Iowa State House in Des Moines.

The president kept up his attacks on Kerry as weak on foreign policy and on the wrong side of national security issues throughout his career. In Grand Rapids, Mich., Bush stuck to his stump speech, saying he would never show "uncertainty or weakness" in the face of terrorism threats, implying that Kerry would.

"The terrorists who killed thousands of innocent people are still dangerous and they are determined," Bush said. "The outcome of this election will set the direction of the war against terror."

Meanwhile, in Nazareth, Pa., Vice President Dick Cheney told a campaign audience that the bin Laden tape was "a reminder that we are engaged in a global war on terror," before launching into his usual criticisms of Kerry's security stances.

As strategists scratched their heads about the potential impact of the bin Laden tape on a tight presidential contest, Kerry returned to the central themes of his campaign, arguing that he is a champion for the middle class while Bush is a failed leader who favors wealthy people and powerful interests.

"This whole choice comes down to who's fighting for whom. This whole choice is a question of measuring a record - four years," Kerry said. "We need a new direction; not more of the same. We need a fresh start; not more of the same. ... This is your moment to hold George W. Bush accountable."

But with the appearance of the new tape, terrorism - not the domestic themes that Kerry has stressed as a referendum on Bush's term - seemed certain to be foremost on voters' minds.

Kerry aides said the senator would stick to his arguments - confident that voters would not be distracted from their everyday concerns.

They hope voters regard the tape as a reminder that Bush "took his eye off the ball" on terrorism, turning his attention to invading Iraq instead of finishing off al-Qaida - a view they say was reflected in their polls yesterday.

Kerry senior strategist Mike McCurry compared the release of the bin Laden tape to news reports last week about hundreds of tons of high-powered explosives now missing from an ammunition dump in Iraq, saying that both would "crystallize for Americans in understanding what the stakes are in this very important debate."

The risk for Kerry, though, was that the re-emergence of bin Laden would remind voters instead of Bush's widely praised performance in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and of the importance of fighting terrorism.

Bush aides continued to bash Kerry's response to the bin Laden tape, saying the senator had politicized it by appearing on a TV interview shortly after he learned of its existence and criticizing Bush for allowing the terrorist to escape.

"Senator Kerry's first instinct and strategy down the stretch is to attack and say anything he can to attack President Bush, as opposed to offering a vision or a plan himself," said Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director.

Greene, traveling with the Bush campaign, reported from Aushwaubenon, Wis.

The trail

President Bush will visit Florida and Ohio.

Sen. John Kerry will visit Ohio, New Hampshire and Florida.

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