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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Bush Campaign Steps Up Attacks as Kerry Gains in Polls

August 13, 2004|Peter Wallsten and Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Republicans on Thursday leveled some of their most aggressive attacks yet against Sen. John F. Kerry, as a series of polls suggested the Democratic presidential nominee had gained slight leads in some battleground states and the economy continued to weigh on President Bush's prospects.

The most scathing critique came from Vice President Dick Cheney, who jumped on Kerry's recent assertion that he would lead a "sensitive" war on terrorism.

Later in the day, a Republican senator used a conference call with reporters to say Kerry looked and acted "French," and to claim that he supported socialism.

The attacks, raising questions about Kerry's strength on military matters, seemed designed to exploit what Republican strategists believe is Kerry's biggest weakness -- a nuanced position on the war in Iraq.

"A sensitive war will not destroy the evil men who killed 3,000 Americans and who seek the chemical, nuclear and biological weapons to kill hundreds of thousands more," Cheney told an audience of veterans and law enforcement officials in Dayton, Ohio.

"The men who beheaded Daniel Pearl and Paul Johnson will not be impressed by our sensitivity," Cheney added, referring to the American journalist and contractor slain by terrorists.

Later, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) accused Kerry of advocating socialism within the United States and appeasement overseas.

"It's not John Kerry's fault that he looks French," Smith told reporters on the conference call arranged by the Bush campaign.

"But it is his fault that he wants to pursue policies that have us act like the French. He advocates all kinds of additional socialism at home, appeasement abroad, and what that means is weakness for the future."

Some Republicans have referred jokingly to Kerry's ability to speak French and his physical appearance, but rarely has the reference found its way onto the campaign trail.

Cheney's comments reflected an escalation in the tone of attacks, coming a day after the president himself mocked Kerry for remarks this week that he would have voted to authorize the war in Iraq even if he had known that there were no weapons of mass destruction.

Polls show that voters trust Kerry more than Bush on domestic concerns such as healthcare and the economy, but the Democrat continues to struggle to explain his position on the war in Iraq and how he would wage the overall war on terrorism.

In October 2002, Kerry voted for the initial congressional resolution authorizing the Iraq invasion.

This year, he voted against an appropriation of money to pay for reconstruction.

Kerry characterized the latter as a protest vote against administration policies that he said valued tax cuts for the wealthy above resources for troops in the field.

This week, under pressure from Bush, Kerry said he would vote again for the Iraq invasion -- even though no weapons of mass destruction had been found.

He insisted that it was not a vote on war and that he would have used the president's authority to go to war differently than Bush. The president accused Kerry of trying to find a nuance that did not exist.

On Thursday, Cheney pounced on Kerry's comments to minority journalists last week that the war on terrorism should be sensitive -- referring, aides said later, to relations with allies.

In his campaign speech, Kerry tells crowds he would fight "a more effective, smarter and better war on terror," as well as one that was more sensitive.

Kerry initially declined to engage in any back-and-forth with Cheney. But later, at an evening rally outside Medford, Ore., the decorated Vietnam War veteran offered a thinly veiled reminder that his chief critic Thursday received several deferments to avoid military service.

"I defended our country as a young man, when others chose not to," Kerry said, appending that last phrase to a stock line in his campaign speech. "And I will defend it as president of the United States."

For the most part, the Kerry campaign left the response to Cheney to campaign surrogates, many of them former military brass -- and all of whom vouched for Kerry's credentials by noting his service in Vietnam.

Retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a former primary rival of Kerry's, called Cheney's remarks a "cheap shot" and ridiculed the vice president and Bush for their lack of military service.

"Neither George Bush nor Dick Cheney has ever heard a shot fired in anger, never worried whether he'd ever see his family again, or seen the destruction caused by the weapons he's wielded," Clark said. "The losses of war are permanent. The consequences are unpredictable."

The Bush campaign's focus on the war comes as new polls suggest the president is sliding a bit in election battleground states while Kerry may be riding a delayed bounce from his nominating convention -- putting added pressure on Bush to perform well at the Republican National Convention from Aug. 30 to Sept. 2.

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