ST. LOUIS — Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry on Thursday questioned President Bush's seven-minute delay in leaving a Florida classroom after learning of the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Had I been reading to children and had my top aide whispered in my ear, 'America is under attack,' I would have told those kids very politely and nicely that the president of the United States had something that he needed to attend to," Kerry said.
The remarks by the Massachusetts senator -- his first on the campaign trail about Bush's initial reaction to the terrorist assault -- were in response to a question at a minority journalists conference in Washington. And Kerry's effort to cast himself as more decisive than the president led Bush's campaign to deploy former New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to swipe back at him.
"John Kerry must be frustrated in his campaign if he is armchair quarterbacking, based on cues from Michael Moore," Giuliani said in a statement released by Bush's campaign.
Giuliani was referring to the filmmaker whose documentary, "Fahrenheit 9/11," features lengthy footage of Bush sitting through a book-reading session with children after his chief of staff, Andrew Card, told him of the attacks. Moore's narration in the film belittles Bush for his delay in leaving the classroom.
Bush has said he stayed seated to keep from alarming the children.
Giuliani's statement said: "John Kerry is an indecisive candidate who has demonstrated an inconsistent position on the war on terror, who voted against funding for our troops at war and who cannot give a clear answer on his position concerning the decision to remove [former Iraqi dictator] Saddam Hussein."
Kerry spokesman David Wade said the candidate had not seen "Fahrenheit 9/11." But for a week Kerry's campaign speech has included a line echoing a theme of the scathing documentary on Bush -- the charge that he puts the interests of Saudi Arabia ahead of America's.
Kerry used a version of the line Thursday after he left Washington and joined his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, in St. Louis. At a rally before the two embarked on a train trip across the West, Kerry drew a roar of applause when he said: "I want America's security to depend on America's ingenuity and creativity, not the Saudi royal family."
His comment alluded to his push for more investment in alternative energy to curb U.S. reliance on foreign oil.
Kerry plans to focus on that issue today, detailing an energy plan that includes investing $20 billion over 10 years to spur development of clean-burning fuels and environmentally friendly technology.
The rally at Union Station in St. Louis was the scene of a theatrical send-off for the train portion of Kerry's two-week journey across the country that began after his party's national convention ended in Boston. Over the last week, Kerry traveled in a bus caravan through several of the most keenly contested states in this year's election.
In St. Louis, 5,000 union workers and other backers erupted in thunderous cheers as a blue "Believe in America" bus carrying Kerry, Edwards and their families sliced its way through the crowd to a spot next to the vintage rail cars they would board for their trip.
On stage at Kerry's side was Missouri's best-known Democrat, Rep. Dick Gephardt. And in his speech, Kerry went after Missouri's best-known Republican, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, in an attack on the Bush administration's conservative leanings.
"There is nothing conservative about a certain attorney general
Following his custom, Kerry suggested Bush had rushed to war in Iraq without due consideration of the consequences. That charge drew a sharp, personal response from Bush, who was campaigning in Ohio.
"Committing troops into harm's way is the most difficult decision a president can make," he said. "That decision must always be [the] last resort. That decision must be done when our vital interests are at stake, but after we've tried everything else."
In Iraq, he said, "I felt we had a compelling national need" to attack after diplomacy failed.
Kerry voted for the congressional resolution in October 2002 that authorized the war. But when the Democratic ticket's train stopped in the tiny Missouri River town of Washington, Teresa Heinz Kerry agreed with her husband's accusation that Bush misled Americans in the run-up to war.
"You cannot solve problems by throwing stones," she told a cluster of listeners from a perch on the caboose. "And you cannot solve problems by telling lies, and you cannot solve problems by wishing ill to other people. The only way you solve problems is by holding hands and talking about it, and that's what we want to do in this country."
The Kerry train is one rich with presidential history. Harry S. Truman, whose hometown of Independence was on the route Kerry followed Thursday night, used one of the cars in his 1948 campaign. In 2000, Bush rode parts of the train across the Midwest.
"Our equipment's never been involved in a campaign that lost," said Don Anderson, president of RailCruise America, owner of five of the train's 14 cars.
Earlier, in his appearance at the minority journalists conference, Kerry lamented the concentration of power in a shrinking number of big media companies. He pledged to resist further mergers.
He said his appointees to the Federal Communications Commission would be "committed to enforcing equal employment and ensuring that small- and minority-owned broadcasters are not consolidated into extinction."
Kerry focused largely on matters of race as he spoke to the group, which Bush plans to address today. He was repeatedly interrupted by applause, and some of the journalists gave him a standing ovation when he entered the room to speak and when he finished his comments.