WASHINGTON -- Democrat John Kerry sought to link the Iraq war to U.S. economic woes on Wednesday, calling President Bush's move against Baghdad a "catastrophic choice" that so far has drained $200 billion in needed resources at home.
At the same time, Democrats intensified their criticism of Vice President Dick Cheney for suggesting a Kerry victory could provoke another terrorist attack on the United States. "It's wrong and it's un-American," said Kerry running mate John Edwards.
Bush toured hurricane-battered Florida, a crucial state in the campaign, handing out bottled water and bags of ice, while Democrats in Washington raised fresh questions about his Vietnam-era Air National Guard service, suggesting newly released documents show he shirked his duty.
Democrats were trying to turn the tables and subject Bush to the same kind of scrutiny and criticism that Kerry, a Vietnam War veteran, has received.
Meanwhile, Bush bowed to election-year pressure and said he now supports giving a new national intelligence director "full budgetary authority." He had been noncommittal about the Sept. 11 commission's call for such powers for the proposed post.
"It's important we get our intelligence gathering correct. After all, we're still at war," Bush said as he met with congressional leaders at the White House before flying to Florida.
Kerry has endorsed all the bipartisan panel's recommendations.
A day after the Iraq death toll passed 1,000 U.S. forces, both Bush and his Democratic rival paid tribute to the fallen. "We mourn every loss of life," Bush said while declaring the United States was making good progress in the war against terrorism.
Tragic milestoneKerry called it a "tragic milestone" during a speech in Cincinnati. He did not repeat language he used the night before that linked the lost lives in Iraq with the broader war on terrorism.
In Cincinnati, Kerry said the president's decision to invade Iraq without broad international support had created more instability in the region, more potential for terrorism and more burdens for the U.S. economy.
"I would not have made the wrong choices that are now forcing us to pay nearly the entire cost of this war -- $200 billion that we're not investing in education, health care and job creation at home," Kerry said at the Cincinnati Museum Center. "I call this course a catastrophic course."
The Democratic presidential nominee spoke at the site of a speech two years ago in which Bush laid out his case for overthrowing Saddam Hussein and asserted that the Iraqi leader had weapons of mass destruction.
Lawrence Lindsey, the then-chairman of Bush's Economic Council, suggested in September 2002 that the cost of war with Iraq could range from $100 billion to $200 billion, including reconstruction. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and White House officials said that figure was far too high and that Iraq's oil revenue would more than cover the cost of reconstruction. Lindsey was eased out later in a shake-up of Bush's economic team.
The Kerry campaign also launched its first post-Labor Day ad focusing on Iraq, a 30-second spot to run in battleground states. Following the same tack as Kerry's speech, a narrator says: "$200 billion for Iraq. In America, lost jobs and rising health care costs. George Bush's wrong choices have weakened us here at home."
Democrats also pointed to new disclosures on Bush's military service, underscoring a strategy to increase the heat on that topic.
Freedom of informationThe records, obtained under pressure of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by The Associated Press despite earlier assertions by Bush and the Pentagon that all had been released, show Bush ranked in the middle of his 1969 Texas Air National Guard class and flew 336 hours in a fighter jet before letting his pilot status lapse and missing a key readiness drill.
The documents do not address the issue of Bush's later transfer to the Alabama Air National Guard.
A group called Texans for Truth planned to begin running an ad on Monday in which a lieutenant colonel in the Alabama Air National Guard questions Bush's absence from his National Guard service in Montgomery, Ala.
The ad asks "Was George W. Bush AWOL in Alabama?" and implores: "Tell us whom you served with, Mr. President." In the ad, Bob Mintz contends he served at the same base and in the same unit as Bush in 1972 but never saw Bush there. "It would be impossible to be unseen in a unit of that size," Mintz says in the ad.
Mintz, 63, said Wednesday in a conference call with reporters, "I never met the man and I'm sorry I didn't because he's somebody important."
Meanwhile, Ben Barnes, a Democrat who was speaker of the Texas House in 1968, recounted in an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes" his recent claim to have helped Bush get into the National Guard. Barnes said he shouldn't have had the power "to choose who was going to Vietnam and who was not."
"Reflecting back, I'm very sorry about it, but you know, it happened and it was because of my ambition, my youth and my lack of understanding" he said in the interview broadcast Wednesday night. Republicans sought to discredit Barnes, calling him "a deep-pocketed Kerry partisan who can't keep his stories straight."
Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee chairman, said new records have "made the issue of the president's service, or lack thereof, completely fair game."
Democrats continued to rail against Cheney's comments Tuesday in Iowa that a "wrong choice" in November would increase "the danger that we'll get hit again" by terrorists.
Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said, "When it comes to the war on terror, we have to be pulling this country together, not dividing it."
Before leaving for Florida, Bush met with James A. Baker III, his point man on upcoming presidential debates. McClellan refused to comment on news reports that the president may insist on two debates, rather than the three recommended by an independent commission.
------On the Net:
Kerry campaign: http://www.johnkerry.com
Bush campaign: http://www.georgewbush.com