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The Race to the White House

Clash Deepens Over Wartime Leadership

Cheney questions Kerry's fitness to be commander in chief. Senator accuses Bush of alienating allies, leaving GIs in Iraq vulnerable.

March 18, 2004|James Gerstenzang and Matea Gold | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — With bombings in Baghdad and Madrid raising new challenges for the Bush administration, Vice President Dick Cheney and Sen. John F. Kerry launched a furious debate Wednesday over who was best suited to lead the United States in the war against global terrorism.

Kerry, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, declared that President Bush had left U.S. troops vulnerable by overextending them and alienating the nation's allies. Cheney, meanwhile, questioned Kerry's fitness to serve as commander in chief.

The cross-country exchanges, waged in speeches delivered in Washington and California, marked an escalation in the vituperative tenor of the campaign. They came as the White House prepared to mark the anniversary on Saturday of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, scheduling a series of events that highlighted Bush's role as commander in chief.

Polls have shown that voters have more confidence in Bush than in Kerry to protect the United States from terrorism, and the president's campaign has sought to press that advantage. But the continuing violence in Iraq and elsewhere could undercut backing for Bush.

The Kerry and Cheney speeches also spotlighted the large role foreign policy and national security concerns were likely to play in this year's election.

The sharp comments from the two camps were played out against the backdrop of Wednesday's explosion at a Baghdad hotel that killed at least 27 people. Last Thursday, coordinated bombings of passenger trains killed 201 people in Madrid, on the eve of national elections that ousted from power one of Bush's strongest allies in the Iraq war.

Kerry, who delivered his speech at George Washington University as news of the Baghdad bombing was surfacing, argued that the U.S. military was paying the price for Bush's failure to win broader international support for the war in Iraq.

"We're still bogged down in Iraq -- and the administration stubbornly holds to failed unilateral policies that drive potential, significant, important, long-standing allies away from us," Kerry said.

"Today we know that the mission is not finished, hostilities have not ended, and our men and women in uniform fight on almost alone, in reality, with the target squarely on their back and their fronts," he said.

Asserting that, "We are weaker today militarily than we should be, but this administration stubbornly refuses to admit it," Kerry reiterated his call for adding 40,000 troops to the armed forces.

The setting for Kerry's speech -- five blocks from the White House -- seemed as much a part of the Massachusetts senator's message as his text. He also was joined by three people who personified the Democratic foreign policy establishment under President Clinton: Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of Defense William Perry and retired Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Shalikashvili formally endorsed Kerry.

Cheney spoke at Ronald Reagan's presidential library in Simi Valley -- a setting connecting the Bush presidency with the 40th president and his muscular readiness to confront Communism.

Sifting through votes Kerry has cast during his 19-year Senate career, Cheney said, "It is not an impressive record for someone who aspires to become commander in chief in this time of testing for our country."

"Over the years, he has repeatedly voted against weapons systems for the military," he said. "He voted against the Apache helicopter, against the Tomahawk cruise missile, against even the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. He has also been a reliable vote against military pay increases -- opposing them no fewer than 12 times."

"The senator from Massachusetts has given us ample doubts about his judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security," Cheney said.

Even as Cheney and Kerry traded barbs, other top-ranking civilian and military officials undertook a concerted effort to persuade Americans that the Iraq war was necessary, and that conditions in that country were steadily improving. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, in an interview with National Public Radio recorded before the Baghdad explosion, said, "The situation is getting better every week without question." He cited such services as schools, medical care, utilities and oil production.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard B. Myers told reporters at the Foreign Press Center in Washington that the mission in Iraq was undertaken to free the people there "from one of the world's most brutal and dangerous dictators and to begin laying the foundation for a free and prosperous Iraq."

"We have done that," he said.

Today Bush is scheduled to speak to soldiers at Ft. Campbell, Ky. On Friday he plans to deliver a speech on Iraq at the White House and to then visit wounded soldiers.

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