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The Nation | THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Commander in Chief Rallies Troops

Bush issues a call for global resolve against terrorism as his campaign continues its attack on Kerry's votes on military issues.

March 19, 2004|Edwin Chen and Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writers

FT. CAMPBELL, Ky. — President Bush commended soldiers here Thursday and pleaded for global resolve to fight terrorism in a speech that highlighted his stature as a wartime commander-in-chief, even as his reelection campaign intensified its attack on Sen. John F. Kerry as "wrong on defense."

In an indirect slap at Kerry, Bush praised members of Congress who voted last year for an $87-billion spending bill to fund military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, had voted against it.

"I'll work to make sure you have every resource and every tool you need to fight and win the war on terror," Bush told thousands of flag-waving soldiers at this sprawling Army base. He also reminded them that he had signed three military pay raises into law -- a rejoinder to Kerry's charge that the president has neglected the needs of troops.

In an election year in which Bush has chosen to engage his challenger at an unusually early date, the presidential campaign is now a backdrop for nearly all of his speeches.

Bush's visit to this sprawling Army base, his second as president, was part of a weeklong series of events meant to mark the one-year anniversary on Saturday of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and to highlight advances against terrorism.

Within hours of the president's speech, his campaign team released an updated television commercial on Kerry's record on Iraq. The TV attack, launched on national cable channels, built on Vice President Dick Cheney's heavy criticism of the Massachusetts senator in a speech Wednesday in California.

The Bush ad, a version of one aired Tuesday in West Virginia, was updated to include video footage of the Democratic candidate's verbatim response to a charge that he had failed to support U.S. troops in Iraq by opposing the $87-billion military funding bill last fall.

"I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it," the Massachusetts senator said during a town-hall meeting Tuesday in Huntington, W.Va.

Kerry's aides said he was referring to his support for a version of the spending measure that would have raised taxes for the wealthiest Americans to help offset the cost of the bill. It was defeated in the Senate.

Bush campaign officials found Kerry's explanation so emblematic of the image they are seeking to build of a flip-flopping senator that they grafted film of his response onto their ad.

But the Kerry camp called such criticism of his defense record a distortion.

Undercutting the Bush campaign's message, a prominent member of the president's own party, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, rejected the notion that Kerry is weak on defense.

"No, I do not believe that he is, quote, weak on defense," McCain said on NBC's "Today" show. "He's responsible for his voting record, as we are all responsible for our records, and he'll have to explain it. But, no, I do not believe that he is necessarily weak on defense."

McCain added: "I decry this negativism that's going on on both sides. The American people don't need it."

While domestic politics was evident in the timing of Bush's appearance and in his allusions to congressional votes, his remarks here Thursday also appeared aimed at an international audience still grappling with two recent terrorist attacks: the passenger train bombings in Madrid last week that killed 202 people, and the Wednesday bombing of a Baghdad hotel that killed at least seven.

Bush said America and its allies must remain united "and fight until this enemy is broken." He appeared to be speaking to leaders in Spain and perhaps other allies that are reexamining their commitment in Iraq.

"This terrorist enemy will never be appeased, because death is their banner and their cause," Bush said as he cited the Madrid bombings.

In the wake of those attacks, Spanish voters ousted the ruling party of Jose Maria Aznar, who strongly backed Bush's Iraq policy, and elected a Socialist prime minister who had pledged to withdraw Spain's troops.

The president inveighed against any softening toward what he often calls "coldblooded killers." "There's no safety for any nation in a world that lives at the mercy of gangsters and mass murderers," Bush told soldiers here. "Eventually, there's no place to hide from planted bombs or the far worse weapons that terrorists seek."

Declaring that the world was "at a crucial hour in the history of freedom," he vowed: "We will stay on the offensive. Whatever it takes, we will seek and find and destroy the terrorists -- so that we do not have to face them in our own country."

After his remarks, the president and First Lady Laura Bush had lunch with the troops, many of whom served in Afghanistan or Iraq, and then met privately with 133 family members of 47 soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In all, 72 soldiers based at Ft. Campbell have died in those two countries, officials said.

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