- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

President Bush’s campaign manager yesterday accused Sen. John Kerry’s campaign of parroting the rhetoric of terrorists, signaling a new level of aggressiveness in advance of tomorrow’s presidential debate.

“The enemy listens,” Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman told reporters on a conference call. “All listen to what the president said, and all listen to what Senator Kerry said.”

In particular, Mr. Mehlman said terrorists listened when Mr. Kerry disparaged Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi after he spoke last week to a joint session of Congress. Mr. Kerry accused Mr. Allawi of putting his “best face” on a dismal situation in Iraq.

Senior Kerry aide Joe Lockhart also referred to the Iraqi prime minister as a “puppet” of the Bush administration.

“That echoes what the enemy is saying in Iraq, and that echoes what a lot of the terrorists have said,” Mr. Mehlman said. “I think that’s an unfortunate statement.”

Mr. Mehlman’s words were the strongest attack on the Kerry campaign since Vice President Dick Cheney warned three weeks ago that a Kerry presidency would bring “the danger that we’ll get hit again, that we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States.”

That remark touched off weeks of criticism from liberal Democrats in a campaign that also has seen several bitter exchanges over each candidate’s military service during the Vietnam War.

Mr. Bush was accused by CBS, using fake documents, of shirking his National Guard duties. Mr. Kerry was criticized by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and other Vietnam veterans for his anti-war activities after his return to the United States and questioned about the circumstances surrounding his medals.

But Mr. Mehlman yesterday was unapologetic about rhetorically linking the Kerry campaign with terrorists who have killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq. It was not clear whether Mr. Bush planned to go that far in the debate.

Kerry campaign spokesman Phil Singer answered Mr. Mehlman’s broadside with a blistering critique of the president’s foreign policy, which is the topic for tomorrow’s debate.

“The Bush campaign’s attacks are as misleading and wrong as George Bush’s fantasyland version of what is going on in the world today,” he said. “For the last week, the Bush White House has sent mixed messages on how Iraqi elections would take place, on the number of Iraqi security forces that are fully trained in Iraq and the situation overall in Iraq.

“No matter how much the Bush campaign stretches the truth, the war has become the quagmire it is today because of the way George Bush rushed into Iraq without allies or a plan to win the peace — period,” he said.

In an effort to deflect such attacks tomorrow, the president is expected to reiterate his belief that Operation Iraqi Freedom is merely the latest battle in the broader war on terrorism. There also were signs that the president would renew his emphasis on September 11 during the debate, as a way of reminding Americans that the terrorists came from the Middle East.

“For too long, the Middle East was ignored,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters near the president’s ranch in Crawford, Texas.

“We looked the other way, and it became a breeding ground for terrorists who hijacked planes and flew them into buildings and took some 3,000 innocent lives.”

In case anyone missed the point, he added: “We can no longer afford, in a post-September 11 world, to ignore the realities on the ground in the Middle East that have led to terrorists hijacking airplanes and flying them into buildings.”

Matthew Dowd, chief political strategist for the Bush campaign, was heartened by a new batch of national polls that showed the president ahead by four to six points as he heads into the debate. He also noted that Mr. Bush continued to chase the Kerry campaign out of states that once were considered battlegrounds.

“We’re doing, in almost every place, better than we were doing in 2000,” he said. “It’s why the Kerry campaign has decided they’ve written off Missouri, they’ve written off Arizona, they’ve written off Louisiana.

“As of today, they’ve pulled ads in North Carolina,” he added. “And so the map is closing in on them, which makes it harder.”

In an effort to reverse that trend, Mr. Kerry is expected to be especially critical tomorrow of the president’s handling of postwar Iraq. The White House has acknowledged underestimating a variety of postwar challenges, ranging from security to infrastructure.

Girding for Mr. Kerry’s attacks, Bush aides yesterday reminded reporters that the president warned of postwar problems in a prewar speech to the American Enterprise Institute.

“It will be difficult to help freedom take hold in a country that has known three decades of dictatorship, secret police, internal divisions and war,” he said in February 2003. “It will be difficult to cultivate liberty and peace in the Middle East after so many generations of strife.”

The White House hopes that such remarks help inoculate the president against Mr. Kerry’s expected attacks.

“We have always talked about the difficulties that we face,” Mr. McClellan said. “We have always talked about how it is hard to transition from a brutal dictatorship to democracy.”

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