SAN FRANCISCO — Sen. John F. Kerry accused President Bush on Wednesday of being the most divisive president in modern American history, and blamed him for fostering a climate that had led to political gamesmanship.
In sharply worded remarks, Kerry linked his rival to the actions of the Republican Senate leaders who he said had used procedural maneuvers to prevent him from voting on a veterans' healthcare measure Tuesday.
"That's the way they play," the presumptive Democratic nominee told more than 2,000 donors at a breakfast fundraiser here. "That's what's at stake in this race. George Bush talked about being a uniter, not a divider. But he's been the greatest divider as a president in the modern history of this nation."
Kerry further scolded the GOP Senate leaders later in the day when he addressed more than 3,000 leaders of the Service Employees International Union gathered at San Francisco's Moscone Center for their quadrennial convention.
The Massachusetts senator told the union members that after he scrapped a day of campaign events to return to Washington for a vote on a veterans' healthcare proposal, the Senate leadership kept the measure off the floor out of political spite.
"These people are so petty, so sad, so political, that all they could do was spend the whole day finding a way not to let John Kerry vote," he said.
"It's time we had a president who doesn't see everything in terms of Republicans and Democrats, but sees things that are in the interests of Americans as Americans."
The Bush campaign rejected Kerry's charges, countering that he was the divisive one, and released a compilation of his most caustic comments.
"The president has a long list of bipartisan accomplishments," said Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt. "John Kerry has been deeply personal in his attacks -- relentlessly negative and pessimistic."
Similarly, a spokesman for the Senate Republican leadership dismissed Kerry's accusation, and needled Kerry about his attendance record. Kerry has missed nearly 90% of Senate roll call votes this year.
"Had he stayed in town until today, he would have had a chance to vote on many amendments, but that was not his priority," said Bob Stevenson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).
The tussle overshadowed Kerry's activities for a second day in a row, drawing focus away from promotion of his healthcare plan during a swing through the Bay Area.
At the SEIU convention, the senator reiterated his pledge to make expanded healthcare his first priority if elected, drawing raucous applause from a union that backed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries.
The 1.6-million-member union, the largest in the AFL-CIO, is dedicating more than $40 million to help Kerry get elected, much of which will compensate 2,004 members for campaigning in battleground states. With an additional 50,000 volunteers, the union aims to knock on 10 million doors by election day.
Anna Burger, the SEIU's secretary-treasurer, said members had been motivated by Kerry's pledge to expand healthcare, a signature issue for the union.
"They believe that John Kerry has the same values that they do -- that he's committed to economic justice," she said.
Jill Hurst, an organizer at a janitors local in Boston, said that although she had been excited by Dean in the primaries, she was "perfectly happy" with Kerry.
"I think it's so important that we get rid of Bush. And I hate his policies so much, it was easy to make the switch," Hurst said.
Today, Kerry is set to address the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees international convention in Anaheim.
He is spending much of his two days in California raising money. After collecting more than $4 million for his campaign and the Democratic Party in the Bay Area on Wednesday, Kerry is expected to pick up several million dollars more at a star-studded concert fundraiser at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles tonight.
"A hundred and fifty years ago, prospectors came out here to California looking for silver and gold," Kerry quipped at his breakfast fundraiser. "And here I am, doing the same thing."