- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 31, 2004

Sen. John Kerry yesterday criticized President Bush for failing to capture Osama bin Laden, but the president and his top aides refused to politicize the latest threat by the al Qaeda terrorist as they continued to portray the Massachusetts senator as weak on national security.

With less than 72 hours until Election Day, both campaigns battled for position over what has become “the October Surprise.” The Democratic candidate charged that the new videotape showing a healthy bin Laden warning the re-election of Mr. Bush will spell the doom of America proves his assertion that the president has failed to protect the nation.

“When Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, he was wrong to outsource the job of capturing them to Afghan warlords — who a week earlier were fighting against us — instead of using the best-trained troops in the world, who wanted to avenge America for what happened in New York and Pennsylvania and in Washington,” Mr. Kerry told a crowd of supporters at a campaign stop in Appleton, Wis., yesterday morning.

Senior Bush officials, however, refused to be drawn into a political debate over the tape’s impact on Tuesday’s election.

“The president said what he needed to say about it yesterday,” senior Bush adviser Karl Rove said during a campaign rally in Green Bay, Wis. “And I’m going to say no more about it until the election. He said what he felt was appropriate yesterday.” Other top Bush aides took the same deferential tack.

While the president steered clear of discussing the tape during four campaign stops in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Florida, campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt called Mr. Kerry’s disputed claims about U.S. military laxity in the Tora Bora mountains “Monday-morning quarterbacking” and said it “does not amount to a vision or plan to fight and win the war on terror.”

“Once again, John Kerry has resorted to false and baseless claims that have been contradicted by commanders in the field and that are the opposite of Kerry’s own statements at the time, when he said that the tactics were effective and should continue,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Kerry campaign continued its assault on Mr. Bush for what it called “playing politics with the war on terror.”

Campaign spokesman Joe Lockhart noted that Mr. Bush — like Mr. Kerry — had made fairly unifying statements about how Americans would not be bullied by bin Laden, especially on the eve of an election.

Then, he said, Mr. Bush “went off and gave one of the most partisan, negative personal attacks on Senator Kerry and his commitment to defending this country.”

Mr. Lockhart was referring to a speech in which Mr. Bush leveled his criticisms about Mr. Kerry’s not having the unwavering fortitude to carry out a global war on terrorism.

The Kerry campaign also began polling voters about the new tape, asking them if it indicates that “George W. Bush took his eye off the ball in Afghanistan and diverted his resources to Iraq” or if it “underscores the importance of George Bush’s approach to terrorism.”

“By 10 points, 46 percent to 36 percent, voters responding to the survey agreed with the first statement, rather than the second,” according to Kerry pollster Anna Greenberg.

Meanwhile, the president directed his top national-security advisers to take any necessary steps in response to the Osama bin Laden tape threatening America.

Mr. Bush held a secure videoconference call with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and the heads of the CIA, FBI and Departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

“The president did direct them to make sure we were taking all actions that might be necessary,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Hours later, Mr. Bush delivered a campaign speech near Lambeau Field, home of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, accusing Kerry of weakness and inaction and telling supporters the election revolves around one issue: Trust.

“In less than 72 hours, the American people will be voting, and the decision comes down to who do you trust?” the president said. “The person who sits in the Oval Office for the next four years will set the course of the war on terror and the direction of our economy. America will need strong, determined, optimistic leadership, and I am ready for the job.”

Kerry spokesman Phil Singer scoffed at Mr. Bush’s “Who do you trust?” question. “The country wants a president who can do two things at once — defend America and fight for the middle class. John Kerry is the only candidate in the race who will do that,” he said.

Later in the day, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that the terror-threat level — currently at yellow, the midpoint of a five-point color-coded warning scale — would not be changed in response to the tape, although he did warn state and local officials that a bin Laden message could signal a new terrorist attack.

The secretary urged Americans to go ahead with plans to vote in Tuesday’s elections without fear, although he did say that the airing of the tape may be a cue to terrorists.

“We remain concerned about al Qaeda’s interest in attacking the American homeland, and we cannot discount the possibility that the video may be intended to promote violence or serve as a signal for an attack,” he said.

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