WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration cast doubts on John Kerry’s credibility Monday, strongly suggesting that the presumptive Democratic nominee lied when he said some foreign leaders privately backed his presidential bid. Kerry denied the White House’s assertion, saying “I stand by my statement.”

“I’m not making anything up at all,” Kerry told The Associated Press. “They’re just trying to change the subject.

In a telephone interview, Kerry said “it’s no secret” that people in some countries are “deeply divided about our foreign policy. We have lost respect and influence in the world,” he said.

“I stand by my statement. The point is not the leaders,” Kerry added. “What’s important is that this administration’s foreign policy is not making us as safe as we can be in the world.”

One day after Secretary of State Colin Powell called on Kerry to identify his foreign backers but made no accusations, the administration ratcheted up the challenge, saying Kerry should identify the leaders.

“Either he is straightforward and states who they are, or the only conclusion one can draw is that he is making it up to attack the president,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Vice President Dick Cheney said Americans deserve to know what Kerry has been telling foreign leaders. Cheney noted that at a campaign event Sunday in which a heckler challenged Kerry to produce names, the Democrat said, “That’s none of your business.”

“But it is our business when a candidate for president claims the political endorsement of foreign leaders,” Cheney said at a congressional fund-raiser in Phoenix. “At the very least, we have a right to know what he is saying to them that makes them so supportive of his candidacy.”

Said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., in a conference call arranged by the Bush-Cheney campaign: “He clearly has an obligation to, you know, you put up or you shut up. You don’t make up reckless charges and then say, ‘Well, it’s really secret, I can’t tell you.”‘

Kerry said at a fund-raiser last week in Florida that he’s heard from some world leaders who quietly back his candidacy and hope he defeats Bush. He has declined to identify them, arguing that to do so would betray confidences.

Three times on Monday, McClellan repeated the charge that Kerry was “making it up.” He also took issue with Kerry’s suggestions that the administration held up for political purposes announcement of an agreement with Libya to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction; and that the administration had rebuffed offers from Russia and France to avert the Iraq war.

“This is not the first time he has refused to back up his assertions,” McClellan said.

In response, Kerry’s campaign issued a list of statements by Bush administration officials that proved false, including the claim about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the prediction that tax cuts would create jobs. The campaign also questioned why the White House press secretary would be doing the work of the re-election campaign.

“The White House would be better off spending its time repairing our alliances around the world so we can collectively fight the war on terrorism and better protect the United States, rather than using the White House press room as a place to carry out political attacks,” the campaign said.

Kerry also dismissed McClellan’s challenge, arguing that the administration was trying to change the subject from jobs, health care and other issues. “They don’t have a campaign so they’re trying to divert it,” he told reporters.

The issue of support from foreign leaders comes as the administration deals with the surprising election results in Spain on Sunday in which voters ousted the conservative party that had strongly backed Bush on the Iraq war.

Earlier Monday, Kerry assailed Bush’s leadership on protecting the nation. He also met with Democrat Al Sharpton, who endorsed the senator but did not abandon his own long-shot presidential bid, and Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Speaking to a meeting of the 263,000-member International Association of Firefighters, which has endorsed Kerry, the Democrat faulted Bush for using the threat of terrorism as “a political prop” to advance his re-election campaign without ensuring a safer nation.

“America doesn’t need leaders who play politics with 9-11 or see the war on terror as just another campaign issue,” Kerry said. “Our nation’s safety is too important.”

The senator complained that Bush resisted creation of the Department of Homeland Security and has failed to provide firefighters and other first responders with enough financial resources.

“When it comes to protecting America from terrorism, this administration is big on bluster and short on action,” said Kerry. “As we saw again last week in Spain – real action is what is needed.”

Within hours of Kerry’s speech, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said a task force of governors and municipal officials would to study how best to get federal funds into local hands.

Associated Press Writers Scott Lindlaw and Frederic J. Frommer in Washington, Deb Riechmann in Ardmore, Pa., and Lawrence Messina in Charleston, W. Va., contributed to this report.

AP-ES-03-15-04 2118EST

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