Tight races, harsh words

Bush, Kerry spar on Iraq

Senate control in doubt

November 01, 2006|By Ronald Brownstein and James Gerstenzang | Ronald Brownstein and James Gerstenzang,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- On a day of coast-to-coast campaigning, highlighted by a war of words between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry, opinion polls show the battle for the Senate in doubt, and perhaps hinging on a tight race in Missouri.

Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, exchanged fire long-distance with Republicans, led by Bush, over whether the senator had disparaged American troops in Iraq during a Monday rally for California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides.

After urging students to make the most of their educational opportunities, Kerry said, "If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

Yesterday afternoon, Bush told a cheering throng in Georgia that Kerry's remarks were "insulting" and "shameful," and urged him to apologize to U.S. troops.

Earlier, Kerry had rejected similar calls from other Republicans. In Seattle, Kerry said his comment was "a botched joke about the president and the president's people, not about the troops," and he renewed his attacks on what he termed Bush's "broken policy" in Iraq.

Later, responding to Bush in a statement, Kerry said: "This pathetic attempt to distort a botched joke about President Bush is a shameful effort to distract from a botched war."

In its criticism of Kerry, the GOP pressed its case that Democrats cannot be trusted to safeguard national security -- an argument Republicans hope will turn voters to their side in Tuesday's House and Senate races.

A new controversy erupted yesterday in one of the key Senate campaigns -- the re-election bid by Republican George Allen of Virginia. Allen faced criticism over taped footage showing his supporters tackling Mike Stark, a University of Virginia law student who approached him at an event in Charlottesville and accused the senator of spitting on his first wife.

The incidents reflected the intensity of a crucial midterm campaign now in its final days. Opinion polls released in the past two days showed Democrats edging closer to the net gain of six seats they need to control the Senate, even as Republicans launched new campaign advertisements in states where they believe they are gaining ground.

Democrats remain confident that they are on track to win the 15 seats they need to control the House. Republicans predict that their party will retain its majority in the chamber.

In Georgia, campaigning for a GOP challenger to a Democratic House member, Bush said, "You may not agree with Republicans on every issue, but you should also realize what voting Democrat in this election would mean for the war on terror."

Focusing on Kerry's comment, Bush said, "The senator's suggestion that the men and women of our military are somehow uneducated is insulting and it is shameful." Saying that U.S. troops "are plenty smart and they are plenty brave," Bush added that Kerry "owes them an apology."

In a statement released after Bush's speech, Kerry said, "I make apologies to no one about my criticism of the president and his broken policy that kills and maims our heroes in Iraq every single day. President Bush owes an apology to our troops and to their families for his disaster in Iraq."

New surveys showed Democrats holding clear leads over two of their top targets. In Pennsylvania, polls released this week by the Philadelphia Inquirer and a local radio station showed Democrat Bob Casey Jr. with a double-digit advantage over Republican Sen. Rick Santorum.

In Ohio, a CNN survey released yesterday showed Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown leading Republican Sen. Mike DeWine by 54 percent to 43 percent among likely voters. CNN showed Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez holding a 51 percent to 44 percent lead over Republican Thomas H. Kean Jr. in New Jersey.

The most recent polls have also shown Democratic challengers leading Republican incumbent Sens. Lincoln Chafee in Rhode Island and Conrad Burns in Montana. But GOP strategists say they believe both states are within reach.

The new polls confirm Missouri's status as the nation's closest race -- and the contest that could tip the Senate. CNN showed Republican Sen. Jim Talent and Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill, the state auditor, tied at 49 percent among likely voters, though McCaskill held an 8 percentage point lead among all registered voters.

Ronald Brownstein and James Gerstenzang write for the Los Angeles Times.

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