WASHINGTON – President Bush blistered Sen. John Kerry on Wednesday as an apostle of “retreat in Iraq” and tax-and-spend liberalism at home. The administration is “out of touch with reality” Democratic running mate John Edwards countered in a campaign growing more caustic by the day.

“Senator Kerry assures us that he’s the one to win a war he calls a mistake, an error, and a diversion” Bush said in a speech designed to reclaim the campaign offensive midway through a series of four debates.

“But you can’t win a war if you don’t believe in fighting,” he said of his challenger, five times a decorated Vietnam War veteran.

“… Iraq is no diversion. It is a place where civilization is taking a decisive stand against chaos and terror, we must not waver,” Bush added.

The president unleashed his newly sharpened attack nearly a week after a scowling, unsteady debate performance that led to a gain in the polls by the Democratic nominee and one day after the Iraq war dominated the only vice presidential encounter of the race.

The president also spoke as the administration’s top arms inspector said he had found no evidence that Iraq produced any weapons of mass destruction after 1991. Charles Duelfer said Saddam Hussein’s capabilities to develop such weapons had dimmed rather than grown in the years preceding his ouster, contrary to claims by administration officials in the run-up to the U.S.-led invasion.

The Kerry campaign released a new ad accusing Bush of “desperately attacking” in the wake of one debate in which Kerry shone and another in which Cheney did “not tell the truth” on Iraq and his ties to Halliburton, the oil services company he once headed. Officials declined to say how much air time the commercial would receive.

For all the attention going to the campaign for the White House, 34 Senate seats and all 435 House seats are also on the ballot on Nov. 2.

In an indication of the narrow band of competitive seats, Republicans said they were airing commercials in 19 House districts; Democrats were in 13 after having pulled back plans for more. Democrats must gain a dozen seats to reclaim control and lag the GOP in fund raising.

Democrats nurtured faint hopes for a Senate takeover, and one candidate tried an unorthodox gambit.

Democrat Erskine Bowles, seeking election to Edwards’ seat from North Carolina, flew to Washington for the day after announcing he would lobby Democratic senators to support a buyout for tobacco farmers with or without a provision allowing federal regulation of tobacco.

“I’ve said all along, I don’t care if (the Food and Drug Administration) is in it or not, I’m for the farmers,” said Bowles, attempting to outflank his Republican rival, Rep. Richard Burr, on the issue.

He faced a tough sell with Senate Democrats, though, some of whom said they might try to filibuster any bill that approves the buyout but not the authority for the government to regulate.

Kerry spent the day in Colorado, preparing for Friday night’s debate with Bush in St. Louis. The two men hold their final debate next Wednesday in Tempe, Ariz.

It fell to Edwards to respond to Bush’s attack on the four-term Massachusetts senator, and he reprised some of the themes he had employed in his debate with the vice president.

Bush is “completely out of touch with reality” about the Iraq war and the economy, Edwards said during a campaign stop in West Palm Beach, Fla. “He won’t acknowledge the mess in Iraq. All you have to do is turn your television on,” the North Carolina senator added.

As for the economy, he said, “they still don’t recognize that there’s any problem with jobs and the economy” despite rising health care costs and record job losses. Like Edwards, Cheney campaigned in Florida.

Try as they might, “John Kerry and John Edwards cannot with tough talk obscure a record that goes back 30 years that had him (Kerry) on the wrong side of virtually every issue that dealt with national security,” the vice president said.

But it was Bush who delivered the strongest attack of the day.

“In Iraq, Senator Kerry has a strategy of retreat; I have a strategy of victory,” he said.

Broadening the criticism, he added, “My opponent’s endless back and forth on Iraq is part of a larger misunderstanding. In the war on terror, Senator Kerry is proposing policies and doctrines that would weaken America and make the world more dangerous.”

He was no less forgiving on domestic issues. “My opponent is a tax-and-spend liberal. I’m a compassionate conservative,” he said.

Bush also referred to the grimaces that punctuated his debate performance last week – and turned it into yet another criticism of his rival.

Accusing Kerry of backing a series of steps on Iraq that were similar to his own, he said, “You hear all that and you can understand why somebody would make a face.”

On the Net:

Kerry campaign: http://www.johnkerry.com

Bush campaign: http://www.georgewbush.com

AP-ES-10-06-04 1911EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.