John Kerry (search) and President Bush were courting Southern voters and their pocketbooks Monday, each man hoping to win the approval of that key voting bloc for the November election.
Kerry attacked Bush on prescription drugs, Medicare and intelligence issues while Bush tried to paint his anticipated rival as not having enough experience to effectively handle the nation's national security and the war on terrorism.
On the eve of a four-state southern Democratic primary that Kerry was likely to sweep, the Massachusetts senator was finishing up a swing through the South, pushing a populist economic message and focusing on jobs in what well may be the toughest region for a Democrat to win in November.
Residents of Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas will go the polls on Tuesday to cast their votes for which Democratic candidate they want to go head-to-head with Bush in November's general election.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (search) — the only competitive rival to Kerry — dropped out of the race last week, virtually securing the nomination for his fellow Senate colleague.
"Our seniors deserve the best care America has to offer," Kerry told those attending a South Florida town hall meeting on Monday. "What they do not deserve is another four years of broken promises and failed policies from George W. Bush."
Kerry outlined his "Compact with the Greatest Generation," (search) which he says will give seniors the protection they have earned for Social Security and Medicare, help them afford their medicine and ensure long-term care.
"Now this president is promising four more years of the same steady leadership that’s left 2.8 million Floridians uninsured and 315,000 paying more for prescription drugs," Kerry said. "That’s why we need to show him the door in November."
Bush, meanwhile, accused Kerry of proposing cuts in intelligence spending just two years after the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center under President Bill Clinton's watch.
'Budget Buster' Bust
In Dallas for a fund-raiser Monday, Bush called attention to a 1995 bill that Kerry sponsored to trim intelligence spending by $1.5 billion over five years. The cut was part of what Kerry called a "budget-buster bill" to strip $90 billion from the budget and end 40 programs that he said were "pointless, wasteful, antiquated or just plain silly."
Kerry's proposal, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and called for a peace dividend after decades of spending to thwart the Cold War opponent, didn't get any co-sponsors. It never came up for a vote.
"This bill was so deeply irresponsible that it didn't have a single co-sponsor in the United States Senate," Bush said.
"Once again, Senator Kerry is trying to have it both ways," Bush said, one of the few times recently he has mentioned his rival by name. "He's for good intelligence, and yet he was willing to gut the intelligence services, and that is no way to lead in a time of war."
Bush was also scheduled to visit the popular Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo — his only public appearance during a sweep through the Lone Star State.
Bush's home state remains a bedrock of his political support. It has given his re-election campaign more than $13.2 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Dallas is among the top five metropolitan areas by volume of donations.
Kerry campaigned there over the weekend, and on Monday was in Florida to appear in Hollywood, West Palm Beach and Tampa. Those and other Florida cities are clear battlegrounds in 2004 as the state was the key to Bush's 2000 presidential victory.
A new poll in Florida poll shows Kerry has an edge over Bush, 49 percent to 43 percent. Independent candidate Ralph Nader (search), who in 2000 won enough Democratic votes in Florida to cost Al Gore the race, has 3 percent. The survey of 800 registered voters was conducted March 3-4 for the Miami Herald and the St. Petersburg Times.
In the Sunshine State, however, Kerry's voting record may plague him with influential Cuban Americans who detest Cuban leader Fidel Castro and strongly object to Kerry's repeated votes to loosen U.S. policy toward Cuba. Kerry tried to explain his position.
"We're not going to just open up the whole thing but should start talking about ways to liberate people," Kerry said.
Kerry aides are in talks with former competitors Edwards and Howard Dean (search). Kerry will meet with Dean in Washington on Wednesday, aides said, to discuss what role Dean can play in the campaign. Dean has a huge Internet-based financial network and e-mail list coveted by the Democratic Party.
Intelligence Failures Take Center Stage
On his Southern tour, Kerry also continued to hammer away at Bush on national security issues and criticized the Bush-Cheney re-election camp for using images from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in campaign ads.
He was also accusing the White House of denying answers to various commissions investigating intelligence surrounding Sept. 11, when 3,000 people were killed, and whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
"Nothing could be more important to the American people at this moment," he said. "Why is this administration stonewalling and resisting the investigation into what happened and why we had the greatest security failure in the history of our country?"
The Bush camp is trying to point out that Kerry has flip-flopped on a variety of issues, including the Iraq war.
"If Republicans want to talk about flip flops on the issues, we're very willing to have that debate," Tony Welch, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, told Fox News, noting that Bush first opposed the Sept. 11 commission, then supported it, and was against the Iraq weapons of mass destruction panel, then supported it.
"This president has had enough flip flops — enough to open his own sandal shop," Welch said.
Off camera, Kerry also escalated his attack on Bush's foreign policy.
"I've met foreign leaders who can't go out and say publicly but boy, they look at you and say 'you gotta win this, you gotta beat this guy, we need a new policy,' things like that," Kerry said.
The Bush campaign rejected the charges as just another Democratic attack mechanism.
"This is another inaccurate attack by John Kerry," spokesman Scott Stanzel said. "Not a single person has refused to be interviewed" and the administration has allowed "unprecedented access" for investigators, he said.
On "Fox News Sunday," Bush-Cheney campaign chairman Mark Racicot (search) rejected suggestions that Bush is dishonoring the victims of Sept. 11 by limiting interviews by the main investigative commission.
"There are extraordinary requirements here to make certain that there's no compromise of capacity on our part to address dangerous circumstances presently existing, ongoing and to make certain that the intelligence function is not compromised," Racicot said.
"So the president has tried to balance very, very carefully cooperation, the provision of documents in a setting that allows for this intrusive inquiry to be made without compromising our capacity to defend this nation."
On Thursday, Bush will visit the Sept. 11 memorial at East Meadow in Long Island, N.Y., prior to attending a fund-raiser in the same town.
Fox News' Carl Cameron, Liza Porteus, James Rosen and Kelly Wright and The Associated Press contributed to this report.