Kerry attacks Bush and Cheney's oil links

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The Independent US

With barely six weeks until election day, a struggling John Kerry has finally taken the gloves off, accusing President George Bush of deceiving American troops in Iraq, and launching a new offensive against Vice-President Dick Cheney's ties with the Halliburton oil services group.

With barely six weeks until election day, a struggling John Kerry has finally taken the gloves off, accusing President George Bush of deceiving American troops in Iraq, and launching a new offensive against Vice-President Dick Cheney's ties with the Halliburton oil services group.

The strategy is a calculated risk - especially the onslaught against George Bush in his most popular incarnation as commander-in-chief and the leader best able to deal with the terrorist threat. But a lacklustre performance in the polls and on the campaign trail has left Mr Kerry little choice.

On Friday, the Democratic challenger flatly accused the President of pretending all was well in Iraq, while secretly finalising plans for a mass call-up of reservists. Minutes after his speech, the veteran Democratic Congressman John Murtha, a defence specialist and former Marine, said he had been told by Pentagon officials the call-up would take place within days of the election on 2 November.

At the same time, the Kerry campaign is unleashing a two-pronged television attack. One set of ads accuses the Vice-President of a conflict of interest in receiving a severance payment from Halliburton, of which he was chief executive between 1995 and 2000, while Halliburton has won massive reconstruction contracts in Iraq. The other presents the White House as pandering to the oil interests of Saudi Arabia. The harsh tone follows a shake-up in the Kerry campaign, downgrading the role of the chief adviser, Bob Shrum, who has urged the candidate to stay above the fray, with mixed results.

At the same time, several battle-hardened veterans of the Clinton campaigns, including former White House press secretaries Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart, have joined the election effort. But the mood of his party is frustrated and impatient - typified by Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania's Democratic Governor, who complained that Mr Kerry paid too little attention to local leaders like himself.

Mr Rendell's concern is borne out by the polls. Depending on the pollsters, the Massachusetts senator is either roughly level with Mr Bush or, if Friday's Gallup survey is correct, trailing by 13 points - a margin that would spell a landslide defeat. Individual state polls paint a gloomier picture. In marginal Republican states like Missouri and Ohio, Mr Bush has a solid lead. In several Democratic strongholds - even New Jersey, which Al Gore carried by 16 points in 2000 - Mr Kerry is having to defend what should be reliably Democratic turf.

Mr Kerry's problem is simple. Security issues are trumping traditional concerns, such as health care, which normally favour the Democrats. One worrying sign is the inroads that this macho Republican President is making into the women's vote. The "soccer moms" - Democratic mainstays of the Clinton era - have been transformed by the "war on terror" into Republican-leaning "security moms".

Not helping Mr Kerry is the strange lack of impact of his running mate, John Edwards. Touted as one of the best campaigners of his era, Mr Edwards's voice is rarely heard.

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