WASHINGTON -- John Kerry said Thursday he would have jumped into action more quickly than President Bush did on Sept. 11, 2001, raising the stakes in the political fight over terrorism as Bush warned that the United States can't afford to "grow timid and weary and afraid" in Iraq or elsewhere.
The Democratic challenger said he'd never waver -- "I can fight a more effective, smarter and better war on terror that actually makes America safer," Kerry told Missouri voters.
Disputing that vow was a group of Vietnam veterans who unveiled a television ad challenging Kerry's medal-winning service in the war. Another veteran, Republican Sen. John McCain, put the president on the spot by urging the White House to condemn the "dishonest and dishonorable" commercial.
Bush's spokesman declined to do so.
Again, war and terrorism dominated a campaign day, with Bush trying to rekindle the rally-around-the-president passions that pushed his popularity to record heights after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Kerry, tied or slightly ahead of Bush in most polls, hopes to erase the president's advantages on issues of terrorism and national security after making gains during last week's Democratic National Convention.
Before leaving the White House for Ohio and Michigan, Bush signed a $417.5 billion wartime defense bill providing an additional $25 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, body armor for troops and reinforced Humvee vehicles. Kerry, a four-term Massachusetts senator, missed the votes on the bill.
Addressing minority journalists in the nation's capital, Kerry was asked what he would have done as president the moment he received word of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Bush spent seven minutes listening to "The Pet Goat" being read at a Florida elementary school after his chief of staff, Andrew Card, whispered, "America is under attack," as television cameras recorded the anxious scene.
"I would have told those kids very politely and nicely that the president of the United States had something that he needed to attend to," Kerry said before flying to Missouri to resume his cross-country campaign trip. "And I would have attended to it."
Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani came to Bush's defense, accusing Kerry of taking cues from moviemaker Michael Moore, whose documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11" questions the president's immediate reaction to the attacks.
"John Kerry is an indecisive candidate who has demonstrated an inconsistent position on the war on terror, who voted against funding for our troops at war and who cannot give a clear answer on his position concerning the decision to remove Saddam Hussein," the Republican said.
Kerry suggested that Bush wasn't up to the task. "Americans want to know that the person they choose as president has all of the skills and the ability, all of the mental toughness, all of the gut instinct necessary to be a strong commander in chief," he said, adding that there is a "clear choice" between Bush and himself.
"I come to the job of commander in chief with the rare, gratefully, but important experience of having fought in a war," Kerry said. "And I believe we need a commander in chief who understands the test before you send young people to war."
Bush served stateside in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.
Kerry often suggests that a wartime president needs war experience, but the remark carried extra weight Thursday as a group of fellow veterans questioned his combat credentials.
"When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry," says Larry Thurlow, one of several veterans who criticizes Kerry in a new 60-second ad.
Thurlow didn't serve on Kerry's swiftboat, but says he witnessed the events that led to Kerry winning a Bronze Star and the last of his three Purple Hearts. Kerry's crewmates support the candidate and call him a hero.
"I deplore this kind of politics," McCain said. McCain, chairman of Bush's Arizona campaign, compared the ad to tactics used by Bush supporters against him during the bitterly contested 2000 GOP presidential primaries.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan did not denounce the ad -- only the form of financing behind it. "The president thought he got rid of this unregulated soft money when he signed the bipartisan campaign finance reform into law," McClellan said. A chief sponsor of that bill, which Bush initially opposed, was McCain.
Bush made his second visit to Ohio in less than a week and fifth visit to Michigan in the last four weeks -- a measure of how important the two states and their combined 37 electoral votes are to both candidates. They need 270 votes to win.
"People of Iraq are watching carefully right now," Bush said in Ohio. "Are we going to be a country of our word when we say people should be free -- that we're willing to stand by our word? Or are we going to grow timid and weary and afraid of the barbaric behavior of a few?"
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