Bush and Kerry exchange blows over military service

With the final echoes of the Republican convention barely faded, George Bush and John Kerry traded fierce blows in a neck-and-neck battle set to continue at fever pitch until election day on 2 November.

An hour after the President had wrapped up his acceptance speech in Madison Square Garden on Thursday, his Democratic challenger angrily hit back at a midnight rally in the swing state of Ohio, rebutting Republican charges that he was unfit to be commander-in-chief.

Breaking with the tradition - and with his own restraint on the war service issue - Mr Kerry lashed out at Mr Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney for their attacks on his military qualifications, having avoided going to Vietnam themselves.

Banishing all doubt that this will be an uncommonly nasty campaign, the Massachusetts senator, five times decorated in Vietnam, told supporters that he would not have "my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have, and who misled America into Iraq".

"The Vice-President called me unfit for office last night," Mr Kerry told the rally in Springfield, Ohio, with his running mate, John Edwards, beside him. "I'm going to leave it up to the voters to decide whether five deferments [obtained by Mr Cheney over Vietnam] make someone more qualified than two tours of duty."

Many Democrats were delighted at the counter-offensive, having grown increasingly impatient with Mr Kerry's passivity in the face of the attacks on his military record, amid the fear that the political initiative was slipping from him. But Republicans claimed that Mr Kerry was playing into their hands, expending time and energy to deal with a peripheral issue.

Mr Bush, who himself went straight from the cheers in New York to the battleground state of Pennsylvania, received some welcome good news on the economic front yesterday, with a fall in the unemployment rate and a solid increase in the number of new jobs in August.

According to the Labour Department, the overall unemployment rate dipped to 5.4 per cent from 5.5 per cent, while the economy created 144,000 new jobs last month - a vast improvement from the anaemic 32,000 generated in July.

Mr Bush seized on the figures, boasting that the economy had added 1.7m jobs since August 2003, and arguing that the economy was back on track after faltering earlier in the summer. But the Massachusetts senator was unimpressed.

A million jobs had been lost under Mr Bush, he asserted. "This President is now certain to be the first since the Great Depression to face re-election without creating a single job. If lost jobs mean that America is heading in the right direction, you should support George Bush and his policies of failure." The jobs failure meant that Mr Bush himself was unfit for office, the Massachusetts senator said.

Yesterday, the two candidates criss-crossed some of the handful of battleground states that are likely to decide the election. After a boisterous appearance in Pennsylvania, the President travelled on to Iowa and Wisconsin, both states carried by Al Gore in 2000 but which are a dead heat this time around.

The frantic pace will continue until election day. The most recent polls, taken before the Republican convention, show the race neck-and-neck. But the impetus has clearly been with the President, not least thanks to the blizzard of attack ads by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth independent group, querying Mr Kerry's war record.

Although those charges have been largely discredited, the group has now taken aim in new ads at Mr Kerry's about-turn after his return from Vietnam, when he became a vociferous leader of the anti-war campaign, accusing American troops in south-east Asia of committing war crimes.

The focus now will be on the three scheduled presidential debates, the first of them to be held in Florida on 30 September.

Florida, braced yesterday for its second major hurricane in three weeks, remains desperately close-fought this year, after the dead heat between Mr Bush and Mr Gore in 2000. The conventional wisdom is that without Florida, which he carried by 537 votes years ago, Mr Bush will lose in November. Conversely, unless Mr Kerry hangs on to Pennsylvania with its 23 electoral votes, he will be unable to win. Completing the troika of crucial states is Ohio, without which no Republican has ever won his way into the White House. Mr Bush narrowly carried the state in 2000, but Democrats believe and hope that heavy job losses in the state's manufacturing sector could tip the balance of power to Mr Kerry.

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