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US Presidential Campaigns Spar Over National Security Issues - 2004-04-26

In U.S. presidential politics, the Bush and Kerry campaigns exchanged attacks Monday over the issue of national security. Vice President Dick Cheney questioned presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry's record on defense, while the head of the Democratic Party fired back at the vice president.

In a speech in Missouri, Vice President Cheney said Senator Kerry had a habit of supporting cuts in the defense and intelligence budgets, including weapons programs that are now essential in the war on terrorism.

"In his years in Washington, Senator Kerry has been one vote out of 100 in the United States Senate and fortunately on matters of national security, he was usually in the minority," he said. "But the presidency is an entirely different proposition. The president always casts the deciding vote and the senator from Massachusetts has given us ample grounds to doubt the judgment and attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security."

The Bush re-election campaign also began running a series of new television advertisements that seeks to draw attention to the Kerry record on defense.

"As our troops defend America in the war on terror, they must have what it takes to win. Yet John Kerry has repeatedly opposed weapons vital to winning the war on terror," the ad says.

But Democrats quickly reacted to this latest round of Republican attacks with some jabs of their own. Even before the vice president spoke, Democratic Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe urged Republicans to "call off the attack dogs" targeting Senator Kerry.

"For the Republicans, twisting the truth into distracting attack is like a bad habit that they just can't break," he said. "That is why today, Dick Cheney, the Bush campaign's attack dog in chief, is kicking off a week-long ad campaign that will question John Kerry's commitment to defending the country he risked his life for."

Mr. McAuliffe also said Vice President Cheney had a "lack of credibility" on the issue of defense since he had supported cutting weapons programs as defense secretary in the first Bush administration.

Senator Kerry, meanwhile, was defending his involvement in anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in the 1970s after he returned home from combat duty with the Navy.

Some Kerry critics have long alleged that he threw away his combat medals during a 1971 protest in Washington. Senator Kerry told ABC television that he threw away only the ribbons from his medals, not the medals themselves, as a symbolic protest against the war.

"This is a controversy that the Republicans are pushing," he said. "The Republicans have spent $60 million in the last few weeks trying to attack me and this comes from a president and a Republican Party that cannot ever answer whether he showed up for duty in the National Guard. I am not going to stand for it."

Given the situation in Iraq and the ongoing war on terror, defense and national security figure to be prominent issues in the November election.

But American University presidential historian Allan Lichtman argues that a focus on security will probably benefit the president come Election Day.

"It usually takes a long time before the public reacts negatively to a president in a time of war and national peril and the situation in Iraq is still very perilous for the president," he said. "But never underestimate the power of a president to define what is in the national security [interest] and the response of the public to rally behind a sitting president."

A new poll released Monday shows the president defeating Senator Kerry by 47-44 percent if the election were held today. But the poll by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion also indicates that Senator Kerry has a slight lead over the president in the 17 states that are expected to be the most closely contested in the November election.