- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 9, 2004

President Bush’s campaign manager yesterday said Sen. John Kerry is trying to compensate for his weak record on national security by savaging the president’s bona fides as a war leader.

“The Kerry campaign, when it feels it has a vulnerability, has a very defensive kind of reactive approach,” said Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman.

In an hourlong meeting with reporters, Mr. Mehlman fired back at the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee for accusing Mr. Bush over the weekend of failing to provide adequate body armor to U.S. forces.

“For Senator Kerry to complain that troops don’t have the support they need to prevent against attacks — after voting against body armor for our troops in Iraq — was a statement that was, one, audacious, and two, was very revealing,” he said. “It revealed a vulnerability they feel because of his voting record.”

In November, Mr. Kerry voted against the president’s request for $87 billion to fund security and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. That measure included $300 million for body armor designed to help GIs in Iraq survive the sort of sniper fire that had claimed dozens of American lives at the time.

An additional $140 million of the president’s request was earmarked for “up-armored” Humvees, which can better withstand hits from mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

Yet on Saturday, Mr. Kerry used the Democratic Party’s weekly radio address to accuse the president of shortchanging U.S. forces on armor. He said troops deserve “a true commitment to make sure they have the weapons and equipment they need as they put their lives on the line every day.”

The Massachusetts senator noted that some soldiers have been reduced to purchasing their own body armor.

“What we face isn’t a question of the budget,” he said. “It’s a question of priorities and values. This administration has given billions to Halliburton [company] and requested $82 million to protect Iraq’s 36 miles of coastline, but they call this basic body armor a nonpriority item.”

Mr. Mehlman said Mr. Kerry was also overly “reactive” to a recent speech by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, on the Democratic candidate’s long record of cutting defense and intelligence spending.

“There was this kind of reactive response: ‘You’re attacking my patriotism,’ which [Mr. Chambliss] didn’t do in the speech, which in fact honored Senator Kerry’s service,” Mr. Mehlman said in a breakfast meeting hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Mr. Mehlman said another manifestation of Mr. Kerry’s defensiveness on national security was the Democratic Party’s reaction to Mr. Bush’s first campaign ads last week. Democrats accused the president of exploiting September 11 by using footage from the terrorist attacks in his TV spots.

Use of the footage was defended yesterday by first lady Laura Bush.

“With all due respect to those families who did speak out against it, there were a number of people who spoke out for it,” she told reporters in New Orleans. “I’m struck by the suggestion that we should ignore 9/11 and not mention it.

“I mean, it was really the defining moment for all of us in our lives,” Mrs. Bush added. “And a lot of our foreign policy — what’s happening in Afghanistan, what’s happening in Iraq — was driven by what happened on that September day, when we found out we weren’t totally protected by the two oceans and that terrorists would attack our country.”

Mr. Mehlman faulted Mr. Kerry for repeatedly suggesting the struggle against terrorism is primarily a law enforcement and intelligence matter, not a war. By criticizing Mr. Kerry’s record after months of Democratic attacks on the president, the Bush campaign is trying to level the political playing field.

“We’re going from a diatribe to a dialogue,” Mr. Mehlman said.

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