Bush attacks Kerry's 'September 10' attitude

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Playing to his strongest suit, George Bush went to New Jersey yesterday to promise an unrelenting war on terror and accuse his opponent John Kerry of having a "September 10 attitude" on the critical issue of protecting America.

"You can count on me to defeat our enemies and defend our freedom," Mr Bush said, a few hours after signing a record $33bn (£17bn) homeland security budget for the fiscal year 2005.

In a speech in a state which, until recently, seemed solid Democratic territory, the President repeatedly went after his opponent for being weak and indecisive, and having a "fundamental misunderstanding" of the struggle in which America was now engaged.

"We are going to win the state of New Jersey," Mr Bush said to chants of "four more years" from the ticket-only audience, which jeered and booed at almost every reference to the Massachusetts senator.

Mr Kerry was "taking his eye off the ball," Mr Bush said, accusing his opponent of favouring a return to the climate of the early 1990s, "when the terror threat was real and we didn't know it". America needed a leader who "will not waver when times are tough", he said.

Mr Bush refused to yield an inch on the war in Iraq, insisting that the conflict was a central front in world war on terror: "Victory in the war on terror requires victory in Iraq," he said, mocking Mr Kerry for saying that pre-emptive wars by the US should pass "a global test" and dismissing it as an excuse "to constrain our ability to fight this war". He insisted his strategy was working, describing this month's election in Afghanistan as a "landmark in the history of liberty".

Yesterday's speech underlined how, in the closing fortnight of the campaign, Mr Bush intends to hit again and again on the theme of the war on terror and protecting the homeland, the issue on which he holds a massive lead over Mr Kerry.

Forced on to the defensive, the Democrats accused the President of scaremongering, and of using the attacks of 11 September 2001 for personal political gain. "George Bush is playing on people's deepest fears," John Edwards, Mr Kerry's running mate, said. "He's exploiting a national tragedy for personal gain."

Mr Bush's foray into New Jersey ­ last carried by a Republican when his father won the White House in 1988 ­ came as polls continued to show the race is extremely close. The President appears to hold a narrow advantage in national surveys, but the Kerry camp maintains its candidate is doing better in the dozen or so swing states which will decide the result on 2 November.

Astonishingly, however, some recent polls have put New Jersey, with its 15 electoral college voters among this number, even though the state rarely votes for a Republican.

New Jersey lost 700 of its citizens in the attacks on the World Trade Centre and homeland security has overtaken traditional economic concerns as the most important issue in the election. As a result, Mr Bush is barely a point or two behind Mr Kerry in the state ­ where he lost to Al Gore by a double-digit margin in 2000.

The Democratic candidate meanwhile was campaigning in Florida, where early voting started yesterday ­ part of an effort to avoid a repeat of the 2000 fiasco in a state where the result promises to be almost as close this time around.

In West Palm Beach, scene of much ballot box controversy four years ago, Mr Kerry delivered a scathing indictment of Mr Bush's healthcare policies, including the administration's failure to ensure an adequate supply of flu vaccine this winter. But he also lambasted his opponent for his Iraq policies.

Brandishing a report in The Washington Post that General Ricardo Sanchez, the former US commander in Iraq, had said the supply situation was so poor that it threatened the troops' ability to fight, Mr Kerry said Mr Bush was guilty of "arrogant boasting" about making no mistakes in his approach to Iraq. "The President's tough talk" about supporting the troops was "empty rhetoric", he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, has sided with George Bush, He said yesterday that armed attacks in Iraq were staged by "international terrorism" in a bid to block Mr Bush's re-election. "The attacks of international terrorism in Iraq are directed not only at international coalition forces but at President Bush personally," Mr Putin said, seen by many as a reward for their friendship.