RICHLAND CENTER, Wis. – Grappling for the few divided states likely to settle the election of 2004, President Bush turned his re-election bid Tuesday to promises of a better economy while Democratic rival John Kerry attempted to hold the president accountable for failures in Iraq.

Bush and Kerry, entering the final week of their bitter campaign, waged pointed offensive strategies at opposite ends of Wisconsin before moving on to other states that each hopes to capture on Election Day.

The president, crediting his tax cuts for creation of new jobs, warned that Kerry cannot deliver his campaign promises of health care for the uninsured and other pledges without raising taxes on the middle class – taxes which Kerry vows to avert.

“That’s just a way to get in your wallet and grow the size of the federal government,” Bush told an audience circled around him in the gymnasium of Richland Center High School, home of the Hornets, in the hilly farmland of western Wisconsin.

“We’ve climbed the mountain, and now we can see the valley below,” said Bush, tracing the path of a struggling and recovering economy, “and with your help, we will get there together.”

Kerry, holding to a second day of criticism for reports of nearly 400 tons of missing high-powered explosives in Iraq, maintained that Bush is “divorced from reality.”

“Faced with these devastating facts, these realities, these challenges that require presidential judgment, what did the president do?” asked Kerry, campaigning at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay and raising the issue in a closing-week campaign television ad.

“First, he tried to hide the information until after the election,” Kerry said of the lost munitions-cache disclosed this week in news accounts. “And what did the president have to say about the missing explosives? Not a word. Complete silence.”

Karl Rove, Bush’s chief political adviser, criticizing Kerry for “ripping headlines” and reaching rash conclusions before all the facts are known, said: “The president should address a situation when all the facts are out there.”

While Bush wasn’t addressing the controversy, Vice President Dick Cheney did Tuesday at a rally in Pensacola, Fla.: “For the last couple of days, Senator Kerry has been saying that American forces did not do enough to protect a weapons facility near Baghdad … But it is not at all clear that those explosives were even at the weapons facility when our troops arrived in the area of Baghdad.”

Cheney added: “Sen. Kerry is playing armchair general and not doing a very good job of it.”

The volume of the contest has peaked in Wisconsin, which Bush has now toured by bus five times, and where Kerry and running mate John Edwards have held 13 events in two weeks.

Still, in this state that Bush lost narrowly in 2000, the most recent polls portray a contest too close too call.

But the candidates didn’t stop just in Wisconsin Tuesday. Bush closed his day across the Mississippi River in Dubuque, Iowa, and Kerry campaigned in Sioux City, Iowa, in Nevada and in New Mexico, a state Al Gore barely won four years ago.

In the last two days Bush has focused on Iowa and Wisconsin, homing in on conservative regions with a pointedly tuned message for core supporters. He has touted his tax relief, his commitment to the defense of traditional marriage and his opposition to abortion.

In these tours of the heartland where the president uses campaign-trail country musical anthems, Bush warns that Kerry poses a threat to pocketbooks and family values alike.

“We stand for a culture of life,” Bush said in Onalaska, Wis., just outside La Crosse, warning people at a civic center that Kerry had voted against the Defense of Marriage Act and against the federal ban on late-term abortions. “There is a mainstream in American politics,” the president said, “and my opponent sits on the far left bank.”

The Kerry campaign maintains that Bush is glossing over the loss of manufacturing jobs in Wisconsin and other states, with Kerry spokesman Phil Singer accusing the president of turning “excuse-making into an art form.”

Bush literally was chasing Kerry through some of the political landscape. The president stopped in tiny Cuba City, Wis., which his bus brigade had passed through in May without stopping. Kerry seized reports of disappointment among residents with an August appearance of his own in Cuba City. So Bush closed the circle Tuesday.

Yet Cuba City Mayor Richard Davis wondered aloud: “With these political games, you really don’t know what helps and what doesn’t.”

Kerry again criticized Bush for avoiding the latest controversy in Iraq, the disappearance of nearly 40 truckloads of powerful explosives after the American invasion.

“Despite devastating evidence that his administration’s failure here has put our troops and our citizens in greater danger, George Bush has not offered a single word of explanation,” Kerry said in Green Bay. “Mr. President, what else are you being silent about? What else are you keeping from the American people?”

The Kerry campaign says it is airing a new TV ad in states where Bush is campaigning that shows Kerry alleging that Bush “has overextended our troops” and “now failed to secure 380 tons of deadly explosives … the kind used for attacks in Iraq, and for terrorist bombings.”

The Bush campaign maintains that news accounts have wrongly blamed the administration for the disappearance of munitions, and accuses Kerry of politicizing the episode.

“He is a candidate who will say and do anything if he perceives there to be an opportunity for political gain,” said Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman.

(Silva is traveling with Bush, Zuckman with Kerry.)

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CAMPAIGN

AP-NY-10-26-04 2032EDT

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