- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

LAS VEGAS — Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry told the National Guard Association yesterday that President Bush is in “a fantasy world of spin” as he continues to mislead the nation about the war in Iraq.

Contrary to Mr. Bush’s frequent assertion that progress is being made, Mr. Kerry said the situation has deteriorated and accused Mr. Bush of hiding that fact from this audience when the president spoke here on Tuesday.

“He didn’t tell you that with each passing day, we’re seeing more chaos, more violence, indiscriminate killings,” Mr. Kerry said. “He didn’t tell you that with each passing week, our enemies are actually getting bolder.”

Mr. Kerry, who was a lieutenant in the Navy during the Vietnam War, also criticized the president for not preparing the National Guard for duty in Iraq.

“When they’re facing the same dangers and coming home in the same wheelchairs, the same stretchers and flag-draped coffins, how can we refuse to give them the same resources and respect we give our regular troops?” he said.

That line met with a smattering of applause. Mr. Kerry received more enthusiastic ovations when he promised to lower the retirement age for National Guard service to 55 and allow guard members to enroll in Tricare, the health-insurance program available to active-duty military members. That latter promise brought a standing ovation.

But during his criticism of the administration’s calculations on Iraq — which usually draw roars of approval at rallies with his supporters — yesterday’s audience was silent.

One officer from the Missouri Air National Guard said the response was because Guard members took the criticism of the president as an insult of them, too.

“The thing that was frustrating to me sitting here listening to him is every time he would say, ‘We didn’t do this, we didn’t do that,’ it was a slap in my face,” said the officer, who asked not to be named.

By contrast, that officer said, Mr. Bush “couldn’t say six words without everyone standing up and clapping.”

Others agreed with that evaluation yesterday.

“The Guard just seemed to have screamed out loud for President Bush. By comparison, what Senator Kerry got was like a polite applause,” said Lt. Col. Clay W. Congill, a member of the California Air National Guard.

Still, he gave Mr. Kerry credit for showing up, particularly after the reception that Mr. Bush got: “It probably took a bit of courage for him to come here.”

Asked by a local television reporter about the crowd, Mr. Kerry said he thought they “listened very, very attentively.”

“I know there were some people in there who didn’t agree with me before I went in there, and therefore, I’m even more respectful of that,” he said. “But there were a lot of people who do agree with me.”

Mr. Kerry acknowledged Mr. Bush’s appearance here, telling members that he understood they had “a special, natural affection and a sense of duty” to their commander in chief.

Mr. Kerry seems to be getting a better reception from voters across the nation. The latest Harris Pew Research Center polls show that Mr. Bush has slipped from his post-convention lead back into a virtual tie with Mr. Kerry.

Among likely voters, the Pew poll found Mr. Bush’s 15-point post-convention lead has slipped to one percentage point.

Mr. Kerry, who in October 2002 voted to authorize the war in Iraq, now says that knowing what he knows, he doesn’t think there was a reason to go to war, though he also stands by his vote.

Republicans have criticized him for what they say are myriad nuances and positions, and the Republican National Committee yesterday suspended its normal Web site to run continuously a video showing a series of clips of Mr. Kerry taking seemingly different stances.

Speaking in Reno, Nev., yesterday, Vice President Dick Cheney said Mr. Kerry has continued to add to the confusion, using as an example the appearance by the senator on the Don Imus radio show on Wednesday.

“He was absolutely incoherent. I went back and read the transcript and thought, ‘What’d he say?’ ” Mr. Cheney said, according to prepared remarks.

Mr. Cheney also criticized Mr. Kerry for saying the administration hasn’t equipped troops properly, particularly because Mr. Kerry voted against the $87 billion package that included more funding for operations in Iraq.

“I am stunned by the audacity of his statement,” Mr. Cheney said.

Mr. Kerry said the administration is continuing to hide the ongoing problems. He pointed to a New York Times story in yesterday’s editions that reported that the administration in July received a new National Intelligence Estimate for Iraq that ranges from the best case of continued economic and political uncertainty to a worst case of civil war.

Mr. Kerry’s campaign distributed the transcript of a press conference from Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican and a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who said the situation in Iraq is deteriorating.

“We’ve got to be honest with our evaluation here, and I think this national intelligence assessment was very honest about it,” Mr. Hagel said. “Right now, we’re not winning. Things are getting worse.”

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