PONTIAC, Mich. – Pressed relentlessly by his Democratic challenger to explain hundreds of tons of missing explosives in Iraq, President Bush accused John Kerry on Wednesday of leveling “wild charges” unbefitting a contender for the White House.

“The senator’s denigrating the action of our troops and commanders in the field without knowing the facts,” Bush charged in Pennsylvania his first public comments on the issue since reports surfaced two days earlier.

“A political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief,” the president said, arguing that had Kerry had his way, Saddam Hussein would still have the high-powered explosives.

Kerry, who has turned the issue into a major rallying cry in the waning days of the campaign, shot back during a rally in Minnesota, telling the president directly that his comments weren’t good enough.

“Because of your wrong decisions,” Kerry said, “you owe America real answers about what happened, not just political attacks.”

“Your administration was warned. You were put on notice,” the Massachusetts senator added. “But you didn’t put these explosives on a priority list. You didn’t think it was important.”

One of his senior advisers, Joe Lockhart, was even harsher.

“For a commander in chief to sidestep these important questions and to somehow imply that John Kerry does anything less than fully support our troops is beneath contempt,” he said. “The American people deserve better, and next Tuesday, they will get it.”

Since The New York Times reported Monday that nearly 400 tons of high-powered explosives had disappeared, the campaign has been dominated by a new twist on its biggest issue: Iraq.

For Kerry and his surrogates, it was the ultimate example of the administration’s rush to war, failure to plan and bungling of operations since Saddam Hussein fell.

At first, Bush left the matter to his top White House and campaign aides to explain.

But on Tuesday, Vice President Dick Cheney pushed back, charging that Kerry didn’t know the facts. And on Wednesday, with the campaign clearly concerned about the story’s impact, the president entered the fray at the first stop of a daylong campaign swing through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan.

“If Senator Kerry had his way, we would still be taking our “global test,’ Saddam Hussein would still be in power, he would control all those weapons and explosives, and could have shared them with our terrorist enemies,” Bush said.

“Now, the senator is making wild charges about missing explosives when his top foreign policy adviser admits, quote, “We do not know the facts.”‘

The facts remain elusive. Administration officials readily acknowledge the explosives are missing. But they do not know whether they disappeared before or after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq or where they might be.

On Tuesday, Kerry’s foreign affairs adviser, Richard Holbrooke, who was a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, said he was still seeking answers to many questions.

“I don’t know what happened,” he told Fox News. “I do know one thing – in most administrations the buck stops in the Oval Office.”

In every speech since the first report of the missing explosives, Kerry has railed against what he calls president’s mismanagement of a war that has diverted the nation’s attention from the global fight against terrorism.

“This is a growing scandal and the American people deserve a full and honest explanation of how it happened and what the president is going to do about it,” Kerry told supporters Wednesday in Sioux City, Iowa.

Mocking the vice president for saying the explosives story was being hyped for political reasons, Kerry charged that Cheney was “becoming the chief minister of disinformation.”

Kerry aides acknowledged that they don’t know if any of the missing explosives have been used against U.S. troops.

“We’re trying to be very careful about that,” said Kerry communications strategist Mike McCurry. “We are not suggesting that we know for certain that the material from that facility has been used.”

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During his swing through key battleground states Wednesday, the president’s political strategists had planned events to highlight his appeal to Democrats. But the pressing political nature of the questions about the explosives forced his personal involvement in the campaign’s response.

He tried still to broaden his appeal. Campaigning in the Democratic-leaning area around Youngstown, Ohio, he brought along Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia to speak more bluntly to fellow Democrats.

After his stinging rebuke of Kerry at the Republican National Convention in New York, Miller recalled that “political pundits and talking heads said that I’m mad and I sounded angry.”

“How very perceptive of them,” Miller went on. “Before 9-11, I had never thought about voting Republican. But after 9-11, there was no choice.”

The largely Republican crowd at the airport rally cheered the sentiment. But it was unclear how many wavering Democrats it might pull to Bush’s side.

“We’re on the hunt for additional votes,” said the president’s chief political strategist, Karl Rove. “We’re playing more offense than they are.”



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