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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

No. 2s Keep Fire Coming as No. 1s Drill for Debates

Cheney again warns that Kerry policy risks more terrorism. Edwards hits back in New Jersey.

September 29, 2004|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

DUBUQUE, Iowa — With President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry preparing privately for their first debate, their vice presidential candidates stood in for them Tuesday, delivering tough talk about how they would root out and confront terrorism.

Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking to a partisan crowd in this closely fought corner of eastern Iowa, challenged Kerry's capacity to serve as commander in chief and warned that failure to confront terrorists could leave the United States vulnerable to weapons of mass destruction.

And Democratic Sen. John Edwards also pledged to seek out and crush terrorists while making his first campaign trip to New Jersey -- an effort to shore up voter support as the polls show the race narrowing in the traditionally Democratic state. He also took the Bush administration to task for rising oil prices that now hover around a record $50 a barrel.

Cheney also revived -- and refined -- an earlier line of attack that questioned the nation's security from terrorist attack under a Kerry presidency.

But he did not refer specifically to Kerry or his policies -- or the warning he raised three weeks ago that making the "wrong choice" on election day could leave the country open to new attack. Instead, he concentrated on what would happen if terrorists weren't confronted -- something he said the Bush administration was doing now.

"The terrorists will escalate their attacks both here at home and overseas, and the likelihood will increase that they will eventually acquire weapons of mass destruction to use against us," Cheney said during a midday question-and-answer session with about 400 Republican loyalists at the Grand River Center, a convention hall overlooking the Mississippi River.

The vice president's remarks, five weeks before election day, were part of an overhauled campaign speech drawn up to emphasize what has emerged as a central Bush campaign mission: undercutting Kerry's effort to establish himself as an alternative to Bush in a time of war in which there is deep concern about terrorism at home.

Phil Singer, a spokesman for Kerry, responded to the vice president's new argument by saying that "Dick Cheney's attacks are as misleading and wrong as George Bush's fantasy-land version of what is going on in the world today."

"No matter how much Dick Cheney stretches the truth, the war has become the quagmire it is today because of the way George Bush rushed into Iraq without allies or a plan to win the peace. Period," he said.

A Cheney aide acknowledged that the lines of the vice president's attack -- some new, some a staple of his campaign remarks -- go to the heart of themes the campaign is trying out for the four debates, beginning Thursday in Coral Gables, Fla.

The vice president was focused Tuesday on two states that are among the most important to the Democrats, Iowa and Wisconsin, with stops in Dubuque and Eau Claire, Wis. Al Gore won Iowa four years ago with a 4,130-vote margin and carried Wisconsin with 5,708 votes more than Bush.

Kerry can afford to lose them only if he can win states Gore lost in 2000. Either Cheney or Bush has visited the states on an almost weekly basis during the general election campaign.

Neither is a major prize in the electoral vote count; Iowa has seven and Wisconsin 17 out of the 270 needed to win. But the tightness of the race, along with the lack of close contests in several large states, has focused attention across much of the Midwest. A third key state is Ohio, where Bush spent Monday.

Cheney spoke in two communities that Gore carried four years ago, suggesting the Bush campaign is working to whittle whatever advantage the Democrats had in each state.

In Dubuque County, Bush lost by 5,879 votes, greater than the margin by which he lost the state. In Eau Claire County, Gore had a 3,187-vote margin.

Edwards began his campaigning Tuesday in Pittsburgh, then moved on to New Jersey, a state neither he nor Kerry had visited because it had seemed comfortably Democratic.

The North Carolina senator was joined in New Jersey by Kristin Breitweiser of Middletown, N.J., who was instrumental in the creation of the Sept. 11 commission after her husband was killed in the World Trade Center.

Her presence by Edwards' side appeared intended to send messages that women concerned about terrorism should consider the Democratic ticket, and that someone who lost a husband in the Sept. 11 attacks thinks Kerry can do a better job leading the nation. Polls have shown an increasing number of women believe Bush would be the better choice.

The Democrats also could be affected in New Jersey by the loss of a Democratic governor after James E. McGreevey announced he would resign in November. In August, he revealed that he was gay and that he had been accused of sexual harassment by a former male aide.

Edwards attacked the Bush administration Tuesday over the fact that oil prices briefly topped $50 a barrel, a new high.

"Before the war, the Bush administration was predicting that oil prices would be $27 a barrel at this point," he said. "One central reason for these high prices is this administration's mismanagement of Iraq and the sabotage of Iraqi oil pipelines."

Meanwhile, both Bush and Kerry continued debate preparations. Bush participated in an "informal" debate at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, then went fishing and mountain biking. Kerry continued his preparation at a resort in Spring Green, Wis.

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