GREENSBORO, N.C.—On the day when U.S. deaths in Iraq passed 1,000, America's leading candidates for president and vice president excoriated each other's positions on Iraq in unusually strong language.
"Of all the wrong choices that President Bush has made, the most catastrophic is the mess he has made in Iraq," Sen. John Kerry said in a town hall meeting here. "This is his choice. He chose the date for the start of this war. He chose the moment and he chose for America to go it alone. And all of America is paying the price."
Vice President Cheney took the dialogue to another level entirely when he suggested, in Des Moines, that if voters elect Kerry, they would invite another deadly terrorist attack.
"It's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on Nov. 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice, the danger is we'll get hit again, and we'll be hit in a way that would be absolutely devastating from the standpoint of the United States," Cheney told 350 supporters, according to a White House transcript.
Cheney said that Kerry would lead the nation back into a "pre 9-11 mindset," treating terrorist acts as crimes that need to be prosecuted rather than prevented with military action.
Kerry's running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, took umbrage at Cheney's comments: "Dick Cheney's scare tactics crossed the line, showing once again that he and George Bush will do anything and say anything to save their jobs," Edwards said in a prepared statement.
"Protecting America from vicious terrorists is not a Democratic or Republican issue, it's an American issue and Dick Cheney and George Bush should know that. John Kerry and I will keep America safe, and we will not divide the American people to do it."
The barbs flew as the number of U.S. military deaths in Iraq crossed the 1,000 mark for the first time Tuesday. Both Kerry and President Bush also issued statesmanlike statements on the occasion, Kerry calling it a "tragic milestone," while Bush's White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said, "We remember and honor and mourn those who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq and Afghanistan."
But on the stump, Kerry continued his attacks on Bush's handling of the Iraq war by tying it to economic issues, saying its $200 billion cost has hamstrung the government from investing in health care, education and scientific research that could improve the economy and life at home.
And Bush responded with scorn, accusing Kerry of mimicking former Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean's scathing anti-war position after coming under the influence of new campaign aides.
"He woke up yesterday morning with yet another new position. And this one is not even his own," Bush told a crowd estimated by the Secret Service at 13,000. "It is that of his one-time rival Howard Dean. He even used the same words Howard Dean did, back when he supposedly disagreed with him. No matter how many times Senator Kerry flip-flops, we were right to make America safer by removing Saddam Hussein from power."
Kerry intends to deliver what his campaign is billing as a major speech criticizing Bush's Iraq policies on Wednesday in Cincinnati.
(Knight Ridder correspondents William Douglas and James Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.