WATERLOO, Iowa – As the campaign for president becomes increasingly vitriolic, Sen. John Kerry and President Bush visited north-central Iowa Wednesday with each portraying the other as incompetent to lead the war against terrorism.

Kerry charged that Bush is not doing his job, is out of touch with reality, and is engaged in misleading Washington-speak that has made the nation weaker when it comes to terrorism and Iraq.

Speaking at the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center here, which was named for five brothers killed in World War II, Kerry mocked Bush’s leadership ability. “Look behind you, there’s hardly anyone there,” Kerry taunted the president.

Appearing in nearby Mason City, Bush said Kerry has a fundamental misunderstanding of the war on terrorism that would leave the country vulnerable to attack.

“You cannot lead our nation to decisive victory on which the security of every American family depends if you do not see the true dangers of a post-September the 11th world,” the president said in the first of three Midwest stops that included Rochester, Minn., and Eau Claire, Wis. “The war against terror requires all our resources, all our strength. We will stay on the offense. We will improve our homeland protections. And of course, we’ll continue to work with our allies and our coalition to keep us safe,” he said.

Bush has focused his attack on Kerry’s ability to lead the country and handle national security, while Kerry has tried to concentrate his remarks in the closing days on domestic issues of importance to the middle class, such as health care, flu shots, jobs and the economy.

The Massachusetts senator is expected to gain a powerful ally Monday when former President Clinton campaigns with him in Philadelphia at a noontime rally. Clinton, who is recuperating from heart surgery, is also expected to record phone messages and radio ads on Kerry’s behalf.

As the race for president has tightened, both candidates have focused their attention on Iowa, a key state that Bush lost by just 4,144 votes in 2000. Democrats, however, have been able to count on Iowa going its way since Michael Dukakis was the nominee in 1988. Recent polls show the two candidates virtually tied here.

Kerry was accompanied at his speech by retired Adm. Stansfield Turner, the former CIA director; three retired generals; and Kristen Breitweiser, the widow of a Sept. 11 victim.

He said Bush had failed to make the country as safe and secure as it should be, and that the president is unable to talk about anything other than national security.

“I believe a president must be able to defend this country and fight for the middle class at the same time,” said Kerry. “I believe a president has to be able to do more than one thing at the same time.”

Kerry, who later traveled to Pennsylvania and Ohio, said Bush treated other countries “with contempt,” leaving American soldiers to bear the brunt of the combat and the casualties. Comparing himself to Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan, Kerry said he would treat allies “with respect and the kind of listening and encouragement” the two former Republican presidents did.

Kerry repeatedly mocked Bush’s contention that he had formed a strong alliance with other countries and he accused the president of confusing the difference between the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq.

“You know, the president says he’s a leader,” Kerry said. “Well Mr. President, look behind you, there’s hardly anyone there. It’s not leadership if we haven’t built the strongest alliance possible and if America is going almost alone.”

Kerry’s speech was a response to Bush’s Monday address in New Jersey that accused the senator of engaging in a mentality of “retreat” and “defeatism” that would make the country less safe. As he fought back, Kerry offered a broad and scathing attack of Bush’s handling of homeland security, threats from North Korea and Iran, as well as his failure to put in place the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission.

Kerry said his election could return the world’s respect to the nation.

“Our troops are the best-trained, best-led forces in the world, and they have been doing their job honorably and bravely. The problem is the commander in chief has not been doing his,” Kerry said. “If President Bush cannot recognize the problems in Iraq, he will not fix them. I do recognize them and I will fix them.”

In Mason City, Bush criticized recent remarks by Kerry adviser and former Clinton-administration U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as a symbol of the minimalist attitude of the Democrats. Holbrooke was recently quoted in the New York Times Magazine as saying “we’re not in a war on terror in the literal sense” and said it was a metaphor in the same sense as the “war on poverty.”

“Confusing food programs with terrorist killings reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the war we face, and that is very dangerous thinking,” Bush said.

“The next commander in chief must lead us to victory in this war, and you cannot lead a war when you don’t believe you’re fighting one,” the president said.


Bush was also criticized Wednesday for sending his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice to make speeches in political battleground states such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio in the run-up to the election, an unorthodox activity for a national security adviser.

“George Bush will go to any length to cling to power, even if it means diverting his national security adviser from doing her job,” said Sen. John Edwards, Kerry’s running mate.

Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt accused the Kerry campaign of engaging in “another misleading and baseless attack.”

“It’s totally appropriate for the national security adviser to speak to Americans about the war on terror,” he said. “The national security adviser is not engaged in partisan activity.”

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

Visit the Chicago Tribune on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


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AP-NY-10-20-04 2034EDT

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