HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) on Tuesday accused President Bush of consistently misleading the nation on economic and health care issues as well as on the war in Iraq.
"Americans should be able to trust that what the president tells them is true when it comes to our country's economy, when it comes to our people's health, and especially when it comes to the life-and-death decisions of war and peace," Kerry said in remarks prepared for veterans at a town-hall meeting in this battleground state.
"On issue after issue, this president's misleading misstatements have produced a credibility gap as big as the New River Gorge (search)," Kerry said.
In a challenge to Kerry's own honesty, Bush called on Kerry to identify who he is talking about when he claims that some foreign leaders privately support his bid for the presidency. Kerry has dismissed White House suggestions that he is lying if he is not willing to identify the leaders.
"If you're going to make an accusation in the course of a presidential campaign, you ought to back it up with facts," Bush told reporters in the Oval Office after meeting Tuesday with Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende of the Netherlands (search).
In remarks for the West Virginia veterans, Kerry said Bush blamed other forces -- ranging from President Clinton and Saddam Hussein to the terrorist attacks and Silicon Valley (search) -- for taking the nation from its best economy to its worst job performance since the Depression. He contended a new study showed that nearly all of a projected $500 billion deficit was due to Bush policies he described as "excessive spending and ineffective tax giveaways for the rich."
Accusing the administration of hiding evidence that its prescription drug bill would cost $135 billion more than it had revealed publicly, Kerry said the administration had "intimidated public officials to keep quiet about the truth."
Kerry traveled to West Virginia to meet with fellow veterans and await the results of the presidential primary in Illinois, although he already has won more than enough convention delegates to claim the presidential nomination.
The visit to Huntington and Charleston reflects West Virginia's newfound importance on the electoral map. Once considered reliable territory for Democrats, the state voted for Bush over Al Gore in 2000. The state also has a high concentration of veterans, a group to which Kerry tries to appeal as a decorated Navy veteran of Vietnam.
Pledging to make funding for veterans health care mandatory for all veterans, Kerry said in his remarks that their care "shouldn't depend on the yearly whims of budget cutters."
Kerry has accused Republicans of "trying to change the subject" from jobs, health care and other issues when they demand that he name the world leaders he claimed want to see him as president and question whether he was telling the truth.
"I'm not making anything up at all," Kerry told The Associated Press in an interview Monday. He said "it's no secret" that some countries are "deeply divided about our foreign policy. We have lost respect and influence in the world."
He continued: "I stand by my statement. The point is not the leaders. What's important is that this administration's foreign policy is not making us as safe as we can be in the world."
Kerry said at a Florida fund-raiser last week that he's heard from some world leaders who quietly back his candidacy and hope he is elected in November. Kerry has declined to identify them, saying to do so would betray confidences.
Three times Monday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan charged that Kerry was "making it up." His reaction came one day after Secretary of State Colin Powell called on Kerry to name names but made no accusations.
"Either he is straightforward and states who they are, or the only conclusion one can draw is that he is making it up to attack the president," McClellan said.
He also took issue with Kerry's suggestions that the administration held up for political purposes the announcement of an agreement with Libya to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction; and that the administration had rebuffed offers from Russia and France to avert the Iraq war.
"This is not the first time he has refused to back up his assertions," McClellan said.
In response, Kerry's campaign issued a list of statements by Bush administration officials it portrayed as falsehoods, including the assertions that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and the prediction that tax cuts would create jobs.
The campaign also wondered why the White House press secretary was doing the work of the re-election campaign.
"The White House would be better off spending its time repairing our alliances around the world so we can collectively fight the war on terrorism and better protect the United States, rather than using the White House press room as a place to carry out political attacks," Kerry's campaign said.
At the time Kerry made the remarks in Florida, press reports based on a transcription of a tape recording quoted him as referring to "foreign leaders." On Monday, however, the Boston Globe reporter who transcribed Kerry's comments said he had confused the word "foreign" with "more." However, the context -- that Kerry contended his campaign had international support -- has not been challenged by Kerry or his aides.