POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. — President Bush yesterday said the war in Iraq was “right for America,” rebutting Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry’s contention it was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
At a stop in the battleground state of Missouri on the traditional opening day of the campaign, Mr. Bush scolded his opponent for what he characterized as waffling on the Iraq war, and took a jab at a Democratic campaign that appears troubled amid a reshuffling of top staffers.
“After voting for the war but against funding it, after saying he would have voted for the war even knowing everything we know today, my opponent woke up this morning with new campaign advisers and yet another new position,” Mr. Bush told a Labor Day rally at a fairgrounds in the southeastern corner of the state.
“Suddenly, he’s against it again,” he said to the crowd, estimated by the campaign at 23,000. “No matter how many times Senator Kerry changes his mind, it was right for America then and it’s right for America now that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power.”
Mr. Bush, who is riding a surge in the polls after his convention in New York last week, has opened up a polling lead over Mr. Kerry after concentrating on highlighting his leadership in the war on terror.
The latest Gallup poll for CNN/USA Today of likely voters, taken Friday through Sunday, put Mr. Bush at 52 percent and Mr. Kerry at 45 percent, with 1 percent for independent Ralph Nader. The same poll taken before the convention had Mr. Bush ahead by just two percentage points. Earlier post-convention polls showed 11-point margins.
At a campaign stop in West Virginia, Mr. Kerry fired back, saying the president’s “rush to war” cost the United States $200 billion that could have been used for domestic spending initiatives he favors.
“It’s the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Mr. Kerry said, adding that the 40 countries that have helped liberate Iraq constitute a coalition that is “the phoniest thing I ever heard.”
Vice President Dick Cheney, campaigning in Iowa, said those allies — including Britain, Australia and most of the former communist bloc in Eastern Europe — “deserve our respect, not insults.”
“I’ve got news for Senator Kerry,” Mr. Cheney said. “As General Tommy Franks said, ‘Every contribution from every nation is important.’ Demeaning our allies is an interesting approach for someone seeking the office of the presidency. When it comes to diplomacy, it looks like John Kerry should stick to windsurfing.”
As a light rain began to fall on him in Missouri, Mr. Bush pledged to “simplify and reform the federal tax code,” as he did in his speech at the convention, but offered no details.
“The tax code is so complicated that even the short tax form takes 11 hours to prepare. That doesn’t sound short to me,” Mr. Bush said.
Before he swept into his stump speech, Mr. Bush wished former President Bill Clinton a “speedy recovery” from the open-heart surgery he underwent yesterday and asked those in the crowd to pray for him.
A Rasmussen poll of likely voters in Missouri, released just before the Republican convention, showed Mr. Bush ahead of Mr. Kerry 49 percent to 44 percent. A Los Angeles Times poll conducted around the same time gave Mr. Bush a four percentage point lead in the state, which has 11 Electoral College votes.
The state had been a tie for months, and these surveys were the first time in months either candidate has pulled beyond a Missouri poll’s margin of error.
The president’s visit was the 21st of his presidency to the state, where he beat Al Gore by three percentage points in 2000.
The Bush campaign was persuaded to come to this corner of the state near its borders with Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky — the largest nearby town has a population of 16,000 — after local party organizers presented a petition with 10,000 signatures.
Mr. Bush will hold three more campaign rallies across Missouri today — in Lee’s Summit outside Kansas City, then Sedalia and Columbia in the middle of the state — before returning to Washington. That will make 11 rallies in six states in the five days since he left his convention Friday.
The president emerged from New York with a boost in the national polls greater than what many political analysts of both parties thought likely.
Two polls released Friday by Time and Newsweek magazines put Mr. Bush up 11 points, 52 percent to 41 percent in Time and 54 percent to 43 percent in Newsweek. The Newsweek poll represented a 13-point swing in Mr. Bush’s favor in the past 30 days.
The share of undecided voters in this race had been thought to be around 7 percent, and the polls puzzled analysts and pundits.
The Democratic nominee got little bounce out of his four-day convention in July, with some polls showing a flat-line in public opinion and a few showing Mr. Kerry losing ground on the small lead he had held over Mr. Bush for most of the summer.
Mr. Bush will visit Florida tomorrow to assess the damage left by Hurricane Frances over the weekend. Aboard Air Force One yesterday, he signed an emergency supplemental request of $2 billion for the damage left by Frances and last month’s Hurricane Charley.
Republican strategists close to the campaign have said that the campaign will begin to focus more on Florida if it gets a break from this active hurricane season, especially since many residents were trying to get out of the way of the storm and missed most of Mr. Bush’s convention.