Revealed: Blair's secret mission to woo Kerry

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has sent one of his closest advisers on a secret peace mission to mend relations with John Kerry, the United States presidential challenger, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

News of the confidential meeting comes as the campaign enters its final 48 hours, with the candidates running neck and neck. Mr Blair is concerned that he will appear isolated if George Bush loses in Tuesday's poll, because of his support for the Iraq war.

The Prime Minister authorised Philip Gould, his polling guru, to seek a meeting with Mary Beth Cahill, Mr Kerry's campaign manager. Lord Gould, a co-founder of New Labour, is one of Mr Blair's closest confidants who keeps him in constantly in touch with floating voters.

Ms Cahill is tipped to be chief of staff in a Kerry administration. The meeting, which took place 10 days ago in Washington, is being seen by aides to the Kerry campaign as an olive branch by Mr Blair.

There has been considerable anger in the Democrat camp at the lack of support from the Prime Minister. Lord Gould, who helped Bill Clinton win his 1992 election, has until now been conspicuous by his absence from the Democrat campaign.

A source close to Mr Blair said that it was "valid" to report Mr Gould's visit but stressed that he is not employed by the Government.

Further apparent evidence of some distance opening up between the Bush and Blair camps has come with reports that the Prime Minister's wife criticised Washington's policies on terrorist prisoners and gay rights. In a speech in Harvard, she praised the Supreme Court's decision to give legal protection to Britons detained at Guantanamo Bay, and condemned the arrest of a gay couple in Texas.

In America yesterday, the spectre of Osama bin Laden haunted the campaign as Mr Bush and Mr Kerry reacted to the al-Qa'ida leader's dramatic intervention in their contest by trying to outbid each other on who best could deal with the terror threat.

As Bin Laden's extraordinary video message sent shockwaves across the American heartlands, and with polls showing the two candidates tied only two days before the vote, the presidential hopefuls placed the threat of terrorism and the spectre of 9/11 at the centre of their appeals to undecided voters.

As they did so, news was coming in from Iraq of the bloodiest attack on US troops for seven months. Eight US marines were killed, prompting speculation that the long-awaited assault on Fallujah was imminent. The day also saw a bomb attack on the al-Arabiya television station offices in Baghdad, which left seven dead. More than 25 other deaths were reported elsewhere in Iraq yesterday.

In Michigan, Mr Bush told supporters: "The person that sits in the Oval Office will determine the outcome of the war on terror and the economy." Meanwhile in Appleton, Wisconsin, Mr Kerry vowed to "lead the world in fighting a smarter, more effective, tougher, more strategic war on terror". He said: "We will make America safer." The issue of national security and the so-called "war on terror" has always been at the heart of this election. But it is the virtual presence of Bin Laden on the campaign trail that most threatens to tilt the outcome of Tuesday's vote one way or another.

It is impossible to know which candidate will benefit. Analysts said yesterday that while the 18-minute video, only sections of which werebroadcast, was an uncomfortable reminder that Mr Bush had failed in his vow to take Bin Laden "dead or alive". But the al-Qa'ida leader's presence and the perceived threat he represents may cause voters to rally round the commander-in-chief.

Mr Bush certainly hopes so. He sharply attacked Mr Kerry yesterday, saying he was not equipped to protect America. "The terrorists who killed thousands of innocent people are still dangerous and they are determined," he told a crowd of 17,000. "The outcome of this election will set the direction of the war against terror. Senator Kerry has chosen the path of weakness and inaction."

The barbed nature of Mr Bush's attack underscored the neck-and-neck nature of the campaign and the reality that, at this stage, any slight shift in the perceptions of voters could prove crucial.

But the challenger held his ground. "As Americans we are absolutely united, all of us - there are no Democrats, there are no Republicans - as Americans, we are united in our determination to destroy, capture, kill Osama bin Laden and all the terrorists," Mr Kerry said yesterday.

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