Bush campaign hurt by missing arms and Halliburton inquiry

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The Independent US

The superheated US election campaign enters its final weekend with Democrats pounding George Bush on the missing 380 tons of explosives in Iraq, and over a potentially embarrassing FBI inquiry into the controversial oil services group Halliburton ­ not to mention the sudden intervention last night of Osama bin Laden.

The superheated US election campaign enters its final weekend with Democrats pounding George Bush on the missing 380 tons of explosives in Iraq, and over a potentially embarrassing FBI inquiry into the controversial oil services group Halliburton ­ not to mention the sudden intervention last night of Osama bin Laden.

With polls showing the contest a statistical tie, John Kerry spent yesterday in Florida, trying to nail down that state's 27 electoral votes. The President was in New Hampshire, which Mr Kerry is threatening to capture this time, before attending an evening rally in Columbus, Ohio, with California's governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Mr Bush began the day with a speech that for once did not mention Mr Kerry by name, as his strategists aim to give a more forward-looking, upbeat flavour to his message after weeks of pouring scorn and insult on the challenger.

But, even before the emergence of the video message by the al-Qa'ida leader, events are putting the Bush campaign on the back foot. It emerged yesterday that the FBI is investigating possible violations of military procurement rules by the Pentagon, over the award of contracts to repair Iraqi oil fields to Halliburton, formerly headed by the Vice-President Dick Cheney.

Mr Kerry's running mate John Edwards instantly seized on the news: "You cannot stand with Halliburton, big oil companies and the Saudi royal family, and still stand up for the American people," he told a cheering crowd in Davenport, Iowa ­ a swing state Mr Kerry is fighting to hold in the face of a strong Bush challenge. Yesterday, the Massachusetts senator did not mention the saga of the missing explosives, which he has raised again and again to illustrate how the Bush administration has bungled the post-war occupation.

The issue grows more confusing by the day. But ABC-TV showed a video clip of GIs at sealed al-Qaqa'a bunkers, suggesting the explosives were still there immediately after the invasion. In a sign of the Bush camp's concern, the Pentagon yesterday called an unscheduled press conference to deny these claims.

Nor was that the end of the problems for Mr Bush. The President's campaign has been caught doctoring a TV ad showing Mr Bush addressing a military audience. Simultaneously, aides were scrambling to explain away remarks by the former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani suggesting that the military, not the President, was responsible for guarding the explosives. A cardinal rule of this campaign is that, while politicians are fair game, the armed forces are off-limits.

However the contest remains extraordinarily fluid. Nationwide polls mostly give Mr Bush a two or three point lead, within the statistical margin of error. But the news fluctuates daily from the dozen or so swing states where the candidates are spending all their time.

Mr Kerry appears to have taken a small lead in Ohio. However, the candidates are neck and neck in Pennsylvania and Michigan ­ previously considered safe for the Democrats.

Most surprising, perhaps, polls suggest Hawaii, normally a Democratic stronghold, has entered the mix. With the state's four electoral votes apparently up for grabs, Mr Cheney has decided to make a time-consuming trip there tomorrow. Democrats countered by dispatching the former vice-president Al Gore and Mr Kerry's daughter, Alexandra, to the islands.

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