Bush, Kerry argue over who can best fight terrorism after bin Laden tape surfaces

Saturday, October 30th 2004, 11:46 am
By: News On 6

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) _ President Bush and Sen. John Kerry charged into a sharp final round of argument Saturday over which one can best fight global terrorism, the import of their debate underscored by Osama bin Laden's sudden reappearance on tape at ``a time of great consequence,'' in the words of the president.

``The person that sits in the Oval Office will determine the outcome of the war on terror and the economy,'' Bush told supporters in Grand Rapids, Mich., after directing his national security aides to take any necessary steps in response to the bin Laden tape.

Kerry was in the Midwest battleground states, too, campaigning in Appleton, Wis., where he pledged to ``lead the world in fighting a smarter, more effective, tougher, more strategic war on terror.''

``We will make America safer,'' the Massachusetts senator said, renewing his charges that Bush was responsible for letting bin Laden slip away and that the president's rush to war in Iraq had diverted needed forces from Afghanistan.

Vice President Dick Cheney made his pitch in Pennsylvania, suggesting that bin Laden's latest message underscores the importance of staying focused on the fight against terrorism.

``It is a contest we did not choose, but it is one that we will win,'' Cheney told a cheering crowd as he pressed his criticism of Kerry's stands on national security.

The campaign back-and-forth played out as the U.S. military in Iraq announced that eight Marines were killed and nine wounded in action Saturday in Anbar province in west of Baghdad.

Bush held a videoconference call with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and the heads of the CIA, FBI and departments of Justice and Homeland Security. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president directed them to make sure any necessary action is taken with regard to the tape.

McClellan did not say what steps were being taken or contemplated. He played down the possibility of the administration raising the threat advisory level, currently at ``yellow,'' or elevated, for most of the country. He did rule out Bush curtailing his campaign schedule to deal with the new video message.

The presidential candidates responded with reflexive gestures of unity to the sight of America's deadly foe on video, but those were swallowed up in the lunge for advantage in the campaign's closing days.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., campaigning for Bush in Connecticut, predicted Saturday that the bin Laden message would give the president a boost in the campaign's closing days by focusing attention on terrorism.

``I think the undecideds are going to go into the ballot booth and vote on who they believe can protect them the best,'' McCain said, maintaining that the answer would be Bush.

Mike McCurry, an adviser to Kerry, said the campaign has no way of knowing what kind of effect the tape might have on the election: ``We'll know on Tuesday.''

McCurry also rejected the idea that Kerry was using the tape for political ends, disputing Republican criticism and saying, ``It's hard to imagine how they could make that charge since he's the one that referenced the tape in his vicious attack on Senator Kerry last night.''

Kerry, for his part, hoped the issue would play to his advantage, pledging to defend the nation ably as president, just as he did as a young soldier in Vietnam.

On the videotape, bin Laden explicitly acknowledged responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for the first time and told Americans: ``Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qaida. Your security is in your own hands.''

After a day in Florida, Kerry flew to Wisconsin to resume campaigning in Midwestern battlegrounds, where he and Bush spent much of the week. Iowa and Ohio were also on the Massachusetts senator's plate Saturday; Bush was stumping in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota before capping the night in Orlando, Fla.

Intelligence officials continued to analyze the bin Laden tape, which they believe is genuine and had been made recently. The campaigns pored over the implications for their scripted weekend finales, and both candidates rushed to TV cameras to respond.

``Let me make this very clear,'' Bush said in Toledo, Ohio. ``Americans will not be intimidated or influenced by an enemy of our country. I'm sure Senator Kerry agrees with this.''

Kerry, in Florida, echoed that ``we are absolutely united in our determination to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden and the terrorists.'' He went on: ``They are barbarians, and I will stop at absolutely nothing to hunt down, capture or kill the terrorists wherever they are, whatever it takes, period.''

But separately he returned to his argument that U.S. forces could have run down bin Laden in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan in late 2001 if they had gone after him on the ground. He blamed Bush anew for the decision to let Afghan forces lead that chase.