MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) – Entering the final weekend of their long campaign, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry turned Friday to the closing arguments they hoped would seal victory ­- the president asserting he was best qualified to protect the nation and Kerry contending Bush didn’t understand the problems facing the country.

The threat of terrorism was underlined by a video of Osama bin Laden aired by the Arab television station Al-Jazeera. In his first video appearance in more than a year, bin Laden told Americans, “Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qaida. Your security is in your own hands.”

After countless speeches and hundreds of millions of dollars in commercials, there was little to say that hadn’t already been said. Both sides focused on mobilizing supporters amid expectations that intense voter registration drives would swell Tuesday’s turnout to record levels. In Ohio, Republicans lost a court appeal to block tens of thousands of voter registrations.

After four days of tough attacks on Bush over missing explosives in Iraq, Kerry said the election offered a fundamental choice. “Do you want four more years of the same failed course?” he asked voters in pivotal Florida, the state where the race was decided four years ago. “Or do you want a fresh start for America that takes us in the right direction?”

The Democratic challenger implored Floridians to “walk out of here and vote,” a reference to early voting allowed in 32 states. In Tennessee, for example, 1,127,739 voted during the 15-day early period that ended Thursday evening.

Bush returned to the central theme of his campaign, that he is a stronger leader than Kerry and would do a better job of protecting the country.

“I’ve learned firsthand how hard it is to send young men and women into battle, even when the cause is right,” the president said in New Hampshire, the only northeastern state he carried four years ago – and where he is trailing now, according to a new poll.

“The issues vary. The challenges are different every day. The polls go up. The polls go down. But a president’s convictions must be consistent and true,” Bush said. He did not even mention Kerry in his first speech in Manchester, N.H., but brought up his opponent at the next stop, in Portsmouth.

A spate of new state polls reflected the tightness of the race. The race is essentially tied in Wisconsin, which narrowly voted Democratic four years ago.

In keeping with his theme of national security, Bush was accompanied in New Hampshire by relatives of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He singled out George Howard, a Port Authority officer who was off duty but responded when he heard the Twin Towers had been attacked.

Bush said Howard’s mother, Arlene, gave him her son’s police shield. “I will never forget the fallen,” Bush said. “God bless you, Arlene.” An event organizer mistakenly thought the president was ending his speech and fired off confetti cannons. The president continued his remarks.

Later in Ohio, Bush was campaigning with actor-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Organizing a big finish, Bush planned election-eve rallies in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico and Texas, the White House said. Kerry’s tentative plans for Monday call for stops in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. Looking beyond the election, the president was planning a Cabinet meeting on Thursday.

After scalding Kerry earlier this week as weak and wavering, Bush told a rally in Portsmouth, “I’m sure Senator Kerry means well but his policies are the wrong policies at this time of threat.”

Kerry appealed for Jewish support in Florida, saying he has been a reliable friend of Israel. “I have never wavered on one vote, on one resolution, on one issue,” he said.

There was a flurry of last-minute political mail. In Florida, conservative activists sent about a million fliers accusing Kerry of being weak on terrorism. One mailing showed an image of school children wearing gas masks and warned that the consequences of a Kerry presidency “are too frightening … to imagine.”

While Kerry muted his remarks, running mate John Edwards said the missing explosives in Iraq and an FBI investigation into Halliburton contracts in Iraq prove that new leadership is needed in the White House.

“They’ve been incompetent in Iraq and here at home they always look out for their powerful friends at the top,” Edwards said.

Vice President Dick Cheney suggested that in raising the missing explosives this week, Kerry was belittling U.S. troops. “Our troops were doing their job,” Cheney told a rally in Dimondale, Mich., calling Kerry an “armchair general.”

Former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, a conservative Republican who once ran for president as an independent, endorsed Kerry on the eve of Bush’s last trip to the state before the election.


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