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KERRY ON THE OFFENSIVE

Denunciations fly about missing munitions in Iraq

LITITZ, Pa. -- President Bush yesterday blasted challenger John F. Kerry as unfit to be commander in chief because of his "wild charges" over missing weapons in Iraq, responding for the first time to criticism that Kerry has leveled against the administration for three crucial days in the campaign's last full week.

With Kerry attacking the disappearance of 380 tons of Iraqi explosives as a massive security blunder, Bush sought to turn the issue into one of the Democrat's respect for US armed forces in Iraq. By complaining that the explosives were not swiftly secured, Kerry was "denigrating the actions of our troops and commanders in the field" as part of a "pattern of saying almost anything to get elected," the president charged -- although he acknowledged he did not know whether the weapons vanished before or after the US-led invasion last spring.

"A political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as commander in chief," Bush said at a rally for 15,000 supporters in Lititz, Pa., while Air Force One waited on the tarmac just a few hundred yards away. "I want to remind the American people that if Senator Kerry had his way, we would still be taking our global tests" -- a reference to Kerry's goal of building wide support for US actions -- "Saddam Hussein would still be in power, he would control all those weapons and explosives, and could share them with our terrorist enemies."

Kerry told rallies in Iowa and Minnesota yesterday that US forces in Iraq were courageous and heroic, but that the White House had let them down by not showing the forethought to secure Iraqi weapons facilities.

"Mr. President, for the sake of our brave men and women in uniform, for the sake of those troops who are in danger because of your wrong decisions, you owe America real answers about what happened, not just political attacks," Kerry said to an overflow crowd of 7,500 in Rochester, Minn. "You don't honor our troops or protect them better by putting them in greater danger than they ought to be. The bottom line is, your administration was warned, you were put on notice, but you didn't put these explosives on a priority list."

Earlier yesterday, at a speech in Sioux City, Iowa, Kerry said the White House was "dodging and bobbing and weaving in their usual effort to avoid responsibility."

Kerry advisers expressed confidence yesterday that the missing explosives could have enormous political consequences for the incumbent, who is campaigning as a wartime leader.

"We are clearly engaged in a very major discussion back and forth with the president about the qualities America wants in a commander in chief, and we believe we're winning that argument," said Kerry adviser Mike McCurry.

Though the missing explosives were first reported on Monday, the president made no mention of the issue at his campaign events Monday and Tuesday. White House aides said the president was first made aware of the missing weapons in mid-October but did not want to address the issue publicly until it could be determined whether there were other missing weapons, and what became of them.

Concerned that the issue could gain traction, however, Bush addressed the missing weapons at his first campaign event yesterday, in Republican-leaning Lancaster County, Pa. He sought to connect the missing weapons to his rationale for ousting Saddam Hussein, and touted US efforts to seize and destroy more than 400,000 tons of munitions in Iraq.

"Senator Kerry seemed shocked this week to learn that Iraq was a dangerous place, full of dangerous weapons," Bush said. "Iraq was a dangerous place run by a dangerous tyrant who had a lot of weapons."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the weapons "may well have been removed by the regime prior to the military forces coming into" the site. But when pressed by reporters on the issue, he conceded that military commanders and the Bush administration don't know what happened to them.

The response from Bush came on a day that the president aggressively sought to bring Democrats to his side. Campaigning with Senator Zell Miller of Georgia, the Democrat whose fiery address at the Republican National Convention has made him a favorite of Republicans, Bush cited Democrats including Franklin Delano Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy to argue that Kerry is "running away from some of the great traditions" of the Democratic Party.

"I know the Democrats are not going to agree with me on every issue. Yet on the big issues of our country's security, victory in the war against terror, improving our public schools, respecting marriage and human life, I hope people who usually vote for the other party will take a close look at my agenda," Bush said.

The president's mention of Kennedy, for a second day, drew a sharp retort from the late president's daughter, Caroline. "It's hard for me to listen to President Bush invoking my father's memory to attack John Kerry. Senator Kerry has demonstrated his courage and commitment to a stronger America throughout his entire career. President Kennedy inspired and united the country and so will John Kerry," she said in a statement.

The president campaigned in Pennsylvania and at two spots in Ohio before heading to the Detroit area for an evening rally at the Pontiac Silverdome. The Kerry team, meanwhile, announced yesterday that the Democrat would return to New Hampshire Sunday for a rally on the cusp of voting in that battleground state. McCurry said Kerry had no plans to campaign in New Jersey, another state that appears closely contested.

Klein, reporting with the Bush campaign in Pennsylvania and Ohio, can be reached at rklein@globe.com. Healy, reporting with Kerry in Iowa and Minnesota, can be reached at phealy@globe.com. 

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