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US Election Campaign Intensifies as Candidates Challenge Each Other on Issues - 2004-03-07

Now that the Democratic Party appears to have settled on a presidential nominee, the race for the White House is intensifying.

It will probably be September or October before the two major party candidates meet in a face-to-face debate. But they are already challenging each other on the issues in separate interviews and at campaign appearances.

President Bush is now referring to Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as his opponent. And the likely Democratic nominee is stepping up his criticism of Mr. Bush's handling of both foreign policy and the economy.

In an interview that appeared on the front page of Sunday's New York Times newspaper, Senator Kerry condemned the president's response to the crisis in Haiti. He said America should have sent in troops to protect Jean Bertrand Aristide because, although flawed, he was an elected leader.

It was Mr. Kerry's first in-depth interview on international affairs since his last major challenger for the Democratic nomination, Senator John Edwards, dropped out of the race. Meanwhile, the Bush campaign is airing an early series of paid television ads that highlight the president's leadership in the war on terrorism.

The Republicans want combating terrorism to be the main focus of the campaign, while Democrats would like to see more of an emphasis on the economy.

In a series of appearances on the news programs that dominate Sunday-morning network television in the United States, each side demonstrated its election strategy.

On the Fox News Sunday program, the chairman of the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign defended the use of images from September 11, 2001, in these initial ads. Former Montana Governor Marc Racicot said they make a point.

"Recalling this moment is about the president's record of service during a very, very difficult moment," he said. "And it is also about what we are going to do about terrorism in the future."

Appearing a short time later on CBS's Face the Nation, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell said more recent events have thrown the president's foreign policy record into question. Mr. Rendell, who once chaired the Democratic Party, said even those who supported the war in Iraq have reason to criticize the administration.

"We were totally unprepared for the peace," said Mr. Rendell. "We have no clue how to reshape Iraq as a country. I think legitimate criticism is appropriate as times change."

Governor Rendell is on a relatively long list of names now being mentioned as possible vice-presidential nominees. He predicted a very close race and a heated national debate throughout the campaign.

On ABC's This Week, Republican Senator John McCain echoed that view. The Arizona lawmaker challenged George W. Bush for the 2000 Republican nomination.

"This is the most polarized political situation I have ever seen," said Mr. McCain. "And, yes, I am afraid it is going to be nasty and I do not think that is going to be confined to either side."

Senator McCain predicted if this tone persists it will discourage many Americans and lower voter turnout on Election Day. He urged the candidates to focus less on each other's past, and more on ways to move the country forward.