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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Kerry Says Nation Imperiled by Bush Inaction on Weapons Ban

He risks a push for gun control as the president renews his attack on his foe's stand on Iraq.

September 11, 2004|Michael Finnegan, Edwin Chen and James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writers

ST. LOUIS — With the nation's assault weapons ban on the verge of expiring, Sen. John F. Kerry accused President Bush on Friday of endangering public safety by refusing to fight for renewal of the law, while Bush continued his effort to undercut Kerry's national security credentials.

In a harsh new attack on Kerry, Bush said that if the Massachusetts Democrat "had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power and would still be a threat to the security and to the world."

Campaigning with renegade Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who praised Bush as a steady war commander, "never wavering, never wobbling," the president also repeated his claim that Kerry had taken a range of inconsistent views on Iraq.

"When it comes to Iraq, my opponent has more different positions than all his colleagues in the Senate combined," Bush told cheering supporters in Huntington, W.Va.

The exchanges showed each candidate trying to take the offensive in a week when the presidential campaign was buffeted by the military death toll crossing 1,000 in Iraq and a dispute over the authenticity of documents concerning Bush's National Guard service.

They also came as both candidates prepared to mark the third anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks today.

On Friday afternoon, Kerry met with family members of Sept. 11 victims in Allentown, Pa., and then criticized Bush's pursuit of the Iraq war at a rally of 13,000 people at a local fairground. Kerry renewed his accusations that Bush misled America into war by overstating Iraqi President Hussein's weapons programs. Today, Kerry plans to attend a memorial ceremony in Boston.

Bush was scheduled to attend a prayer service today and then participate in a moment of silence at the White House. Later, he is to give a live broadcast of his weekly radio address, joined by families of the 9/11 victims.

On only one other occasion has Bush delivered the radio address live, rather than taping it in advance.

Kerry's call to renew the assault weapons ban, and his criticism of Bush's inaction, marked a rare departure from his practice of playing down gun control, an issue Republicans had used to undercut Democratic support in regions where hunting was popular.

The 1994 ban on semiautomatics and other assault guns is due to expire Monday. Bush has said he supports renewal of the ban but has not applied substantial pressure on Congress to extend it.

Describing himself as a hunter and gun owner, Kerry pointed to widespread police support for renewing the weapons ban.

"As a hunter, I have never, ever thought about going hunting with an AK-47 or an Uzi or anything else," the Democratic nominee told several hundred supporters at a campaign forum in St. Louis.

The Massachusetts senator, whose votes for gun control have led the National Rifle Assn. to give him an "F" rating, accused the president of bowing to pressure from the gun lobby by failing to push Congress to extend the ban. And in a new turn, Kerry drew a link between Bush's stand on the issue and the threat of terrorist strikes.

"These folks are out there talking about the war on terror, trying to scare Americans," Kerry said. Meanwhile, he said, an Al Qaeda manual urges attackers "to come to America and buy assault weapons."

"We should do more than just talk about it, and try to scare people about it, and make it a political issue," he said, referring to terrorism.

Gun control poses a tough challenge for Kerry in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and other swing states where Bush and his allies depict the Massachusetts Democrat as a threat to gun owners. Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Friday that Kerry had "spent a career in the Senate voting against hunters."Campaigning in West Virginia, Bush continued his effort to paint Kerry as inconsistent in his policy stances.

Bush repeated his previous criticism that Kerry voted in 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq then voted against an appropriation for military operations.

"The newest wrinkle," the president said Friday, "is that Sen. Kerry has now decided we are spending too much money in Iraq, even though he criticized us earlier for not spending enough."

The Kerry campaign quickly fired back. Phil Singer, a Kerry spokesman, said that Bush "went to war in a rush, without our allies, without properly equipping the troops and without a plan to win the peace."

Singer added: "As a result, the American people are paying $200 billion, and our troops are suffering nearly 90% of the casualties.... John Kerry would not have done just one thing differently when it comes to Iraq. He would have done almost everything differently."

Bush leveled his latest criticisms as he campaigned by bus along the southern Ohio River Valley, first in West Virginia and then in Ohio. He was accompanied by Miller, the Democratic senator from Georgia who delivered the keynote address at the recent Republican National Convention -- a scorching indictment of Kerry that infuriated many Democrats.

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