- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 7, 2004

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — President Bush yesterday said Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry has a “strategy of retreat” and has flip-flopped on Iraq so brazenly that “you can understand why somebody would make a face.”

The president, panned for his facial expressions in the first presidential debate and, more substantively, for not homing in on his opponent’s contradictory 20-year record in the Senate, unleashed a blistering speech yesterday in which he crystallized the differences between himself and Mr. Kerry.

“Last week in our debate, he once again came down firmly on every side of the Iraq war. He stated that Saddam Hussein was a threat and that America had no business removing that threat. Senator Kerry said our soldiers and Marines are not fighting for a mistake, but also called the liberation of Iraq a ‘colossal error,’” Mr. Bush told several thousand supporters.

“He said we need to do more to train Iraqis, but he also said we shouldn’t be spending so much money over there. … He said terrorists are pouring across the Iraqi border, but also said that fighting those terrorists is a ‘diversion’ from the war on terror.”

With a sly smile and a wink to supporters in the front row, Mr. Bush paused for a moment, leaned into the podium and said loudly: “You hear all that, and you can understand why somebody would make a face.”

The crowd burst into applause and leaped to its feet.

Yesterday’s speech gave Mr. Bush, who was criticized for failing to pounce on Mr. Kerry’s record in the first debate, an opportunity to sharpen his attack and diffuse the lingering effects of his so-called “scowl and growl” before tomorrow’s second debate. It also filled the void in the news cycle that Mr. Kerry has controlled since his solid performance in the first encounter led to poll gains.

Democrats called the speech Mr. Bush’s “mulligan” — essentially a do-over to make the points that Republicans think he should have made in last week’s debate.

Speaking to reporters in West Palm Beach, Fla., Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards said Mr. Bush’s speech was filled with “old ideas and attacks.”

“They give these speeches in front of friendly audiences for a reason,” he said. “Because they cannot defend their record in front of the American people or in front of John Kerry or myself. That became clear Thursday night here in Florida when John Kerry debated George Bush, and it was clear also last night when I debated Dick Cheney.

“They are in a complete state of denial about what’s happening in Iraq,” Mr. Edwards said. “You cannot fix a problem unless you recognize there is a problem.”

Kerry adviser Mike McCurry said letting Mr. Edwards respond was a calculated move, allowing him to capitalize on what the campaign thinks was a strong performance in the vice-presidential debate and keeping Mr. Kerry above the crossfire. Mr. Kerry was in Englewood, Colo., yesterday preparing for the town-hall-style debate in St. Louis tomorrow.

In Pennsylvania, the president, turning serious, said Mr. Kerry’s politically motivated flip-flops are a sign that the candidate has a “larger misunderstanding.” He said his opponent is proposing policies and doctrines that would weaken America and make the world more dangerous because he suffers from a “September the 10th mind-set.”

“In our debate, Senator Kerry said that removing Saddam Hussein was a mistake because the threat was not imminent. The problem with this approach is obvious. If America waits until a threat is at our doorstep, it might be too late to save lives. Tyrants and terrorists will not give us polite notice before they launch an attack on our country.”

In his speech, Mr. Bush ridiculed what he called the “Kerry Doctrine,” a policy that the Democrat enunciated during the debate in which the United States would seek to pass a “global test” and avoid unilaterally going to war, as Mr. Bush did in Iraq.

“Under this test, America would not be able to act quickly against threats because we are sitting around waiting for our grade from other nations and other leaders,” he said.

The president reprised much of his standard stump speech, although he included a recently added thrust at Mr. Kerry, saying the Democrat is proposing “Clinton care,” a reference to former first lady Hillary Clinton’s health care plan that was perceived by Republicans as an attempt to nationalize the system. One audience member yelled out, “Communist.”

Mr. Bush also included a new section on the senator’s “20-year history of weakness,” noting that “of the hundreds of bills he submitted, only five became law, and one of them was ceremonial.”

And the president, known for his black-and-white take on the world, said Mr. Kerry is a “tax-and-spend liberal,” while he is a “compassionate conservative.”

Mr. McCurry said for the president to make the charges he did also shows that the Republicans think Mr. Cheney didn’t do as well as they had hoped in Tuesday’s vice-presidential debate.

“It would be extraordinary in most cases to send the president out to make such a harshly negative speech if they really felt that last night Dick Cheney had gotten the job done that they needed to have done,” Mr. McCurry told reporters traveling with Mr. Kerry’s campaign in Colorado.

He said Mr. Bush displayed an “unhinged quality” in the speech.

“I can’t remember an incumbent president of the United States against a challenger giving a speech so harsh and so negative,” he said, challenging reporters, “I’ll put 20 bucks on anyone who can find a better example.”

• Stephen Dinan in Colorado and Charles Hurt contributed to this report.

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