Thursday, October 28, 2004

TOLEDO, Ohio — For the fourth straight day, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry accused President Bush of failing as commander in chief to secure explosives missing in Iraq, but implied that he doesn’t know the facts, saying it’s the administration’s job to explain them.

“Here’s the bottom line — they’re not where they’re supposed to be; you were warned to guard them; you didn’t guard them; they’re not secure,” he told a rally yesterday in Toledo.

Mr. Kerry has shifted his argument since Monday, when he blamed the president for the 380 tons of explosives missing from Al-Qaqaa, as news outlets have reported since that the explosives could not have been moved while the United States had control and that the amount was overstated.

In addition, according to an article in The Washington Times, the Russians moved the explosives while Saddam Hussein was in control.

“If that is the administration’s explanation, they need to come forward and say so, and then they need to tell us, given the special relationship President Bush has with [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, whether he raised this bilaterally with the Russians,” campaign adviser Mike McCurry told reporters traveling with Mr. Kerry yesterday.

“Regardless of what was the status of the munitions at the facility, there was no one who thought this was a facility that didn’t need to be secured,” he said.

The president mostly ignored the specifics of the issue yesterday, leaving the matter to surrogates. Vice President Dick Cheney pointedly accused Mr. Kerry of trying to “score political points in the closing day of the campaign.”

“His principal foreign-policy adviser, Holbrooke, is quoted as saying in the last couple of days, he doesn’t know what the truth is. But Kerry is out there anyway, making these charges that obviously impugn the integrity of the process, the commanders and so forth saying, ‘Well, you didn’t do your job,’” Mr. Cheney said, referring to comments by Richard C. Holbrooke.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the entire matter is under review, but he said The Washington Times report shows that Mr. Kerry shouldn’t have made his charges based on the initial story, which ran Monday in the New York Times.

“His own advisers came out and said, ‘We don’t know the truth, we don’t know the facts,’” Mr. McClellan said. “And, yet, Senator Kerry jumped to a conclusion and made these wild accusations without knowing the facts or knowing the truth.

“I think he has shown that he’s not going to let the facts or the truth stand in the way of his campaign,” he said.

Earlier this week, Mr. Kerry had charged, based on the New York Times story, that the weapons disappeared on U.S. watch. On Tuesday in Green Bay, Wis., he said Mr. Bush’s “failure to secure those explosives threatens American troops and the American people.”

But aides said Mr. Kerry is being more careful about his accusations and arguing that the failure to investigate the sites soon after the United States took control is just as bad.

“He understands he has to be very precise in what he’s saying and not overstate what we know,” Mr. McCurry said. “You know you make as strong a case as you can about the fundamental argument here which was the lack of preparation, the lack of thinking about what the consequences of the invasion what it would be.”

Democrats see this as a compelling issue for voters.

“We think the way we have left those troops on the ground short of information, of resources they need in order to do the job, the ability to safeguard that facility and presumably others, really does call into question the president’s conduct of the war,” Mr. McCurry said, although he declined to say whether the campaign’s polls showed that the argument was working with voters.

Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd said the Kerry campaign is making a mistake by jumping on the story and turning it into “a political football.”

“I’m surprised they did it,” Mr. Dowd told reporters at a luncheon sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor yesterday in Washington. “I thought they told everyone they wanted to finish up on domestic issues.”

The Bush campaign thinks that when the campaign focuses on Iraq, even if it could be bad news, the president benefits, because voters have told pollsters that they prefer to have Mr. Bush handle the situation there.

“We’re happy to have a discussion about this until Tuesday,” Mr. Dowd said.

For his part, Mr. Bush continued his offensive from Wednesday, saying Mr. Kerry’s attacks are denigrating the troops in Iraq.

“This week Senator Kerry is again attacking the actions of our military in Iraq, with complete disregard for the facts,” he said.

Four days into the back and forth, Mr. Kerry continues to sharpen his argument and his campaign continues to make a full press on the issue, sending out statements from surrogates and having both Mr. Kerry and running mate Sen. John Edwards talk about it.

“The president’s shifting explanations and excuses and attacks on me demonstrate once again that this president believes the buck stops everywhere but with the president of the United States,” Mr. Kerry said in Toledo.

Citing Mr. Bush’s comment in Wednesday that “a political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief,” Mr. Kerry said that means Mr. Bush should be disqualified because Iraq wasn’t connected to the September 11 attacks and didn’t have weapons of mass destruction.

“According to George Bush’s own words, he shouldn’t be our commander in chief. I couldn’t agree more,” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. Edwards charged that it was actually former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, whom he called Mr. Bush’s “chief surrogate,” who denigrated the troops when he told NBC’s “Today” program yesterday that “no matter how you try to blame it on the president, the actual responsibility for it really would be for the troops that were there. Did they search carefully enough?”

“This is what Rudy did, he blamed the troops. He said they didn’t do their job. He couldn’t be more wrong,” Mr. Edwards said at a rally at the University of Minnesota.

• Bill Sammon, traveling with President Bush, and James G. Lakely in Washington contributed to this article.

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