Bush, Kerry Camps Battle Over Defense

As an attack on a Baghdad hotel left more than two dozen dead in Iraq on Wednesday, Vice President Dick Cheney (search) counter-attacked presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (search), who alleges Bush administration policies in Iraq are misguided and misleading.

Speaking to a fund-raising audience in California, Cheney said Kerry's record has been inconsistent, except for his consistent votes opposing military hardware and support for U.S. troops. He warned voters against that kind of decision-making.

"In his years in Washington, Senator Kerry has been one vote of a hundred in the United States Senate, and fortunately on matters of national security, he was very often in the minority," Cheney said in a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library (search) in Simi Valley.

"But the presidency is an entirely different proposition. The president always casts the deciding vote. And the senator from Massachusetts has given us ample doubts about his judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security," Cheney said. 

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Cheney accused Kerry of voting against body armor for troops when he opposed the $87 billion emergency supplemental bill to pay for operations and reconstruction in Iraq that was passed in October last year. Kerry said Tuesday that he, in fact, did vote for a failed amendment he co-sponsored that would have allowed the emergency supplemental as long as it was paid for with a repeal of tax cuts granted to upper-income earners.

"I actually did vote for the 87 billion dollars before I voted against it," Kerry told supporters in West Virginia. 

On Wednesday, however, Kerry was quick to rebut the vice president's charges about his ability to make presidential decisions, telling an audience at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., that being president doesn't mean hanging on to bad decisions.

"We are still bogged down in Iraq and the administration stubbornly holds to failed policies that drive potential allies away. What we have seen is a steady loss of lives and mounting cost in dollars with no end in sight," Kerry said. "The lesson here is fundamental: At times, conflict comes, and the decision must be made. For a president, the decision may be lonely, but that does not mean that America should go it alone."

The dueling discourse took place almost a year to the day since the United States first attacked Iraq and as a massive blast hit the Mount Lebanon hotel (search) in Baghdad, killing at least 26 people and injuring at least 41.

A senior administration official told Fox News that the bombing follows a recent trend in which "softer targets" are being attacked because U.S. targets are harder to reach. White House aides said it's too soon to tell who is behind the deadly bombing, but one official surmised the explosion does not look like the work of former Iraqi regime members.

A senior Bush administration official said one reason why the bombing does not look like the work of former Iraqi regime members. The car bomb was believed to also have been a suicide bombing, not typical of Iraqis.

"Former regime types are not into martyrdom," the administration source told Fox News.

Cheney and Kerry Condemn Terror Attack

After escorting former first lady Nancy Reagan (search) through the Ronald Reagan Library, Cheney condemned the "murderous attack" in Baghdad and said it was the work of terrorists who are determined to block the rise of democracy in Iraq.

"The thugs and assassins in Iraq are desperately trying to shake our will ... they will fail," he said.

Earlier, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the roots of democracy are beginning to take hold in Iraq, and they won't be poisoned by terror.

"We are going to stay until the job is done, McClellan said. "Obviously, we will be working with the new interim government to make some of those determinations as we move forward on transferring sovereignty to the Iraqi people. It's important that we continue helping the Iraqi people move forward on democracy and freedom."

Kerry was delivering his speech just as the 1,000-pound bomb exploded in Baghdad. In his remarks, the senator blamed Bush's policies for creating ongoing hostilities and ever more violence.

"Today we know that the mission is not finished, hostilities have not ended, and our men and women in uniform fight on almost alone with the target squarely on their backs … Every day they face danger and death from suicide bombers, roadside bombers and now, ironically, from the very Iraqi police they are training," he said.

Later, Kerry released a statement saying that the United States “must send a strong message that these cowardly acts will only strengthen our resolve ... We must make it clear to all that now it is the time for all nations to come together to fight our common enemies. That is why today I reiterate my call for America to convene an international summit to coordinate our efforts against terror and to strengthen and grow our coalition in Iraq"

A National Annenberg Election Survey showed that support for the operation in Iraq has declined since the eve of war and even since January.

Among the 1,249 adults interviewed between March 1 and 15, 46 percent said that based on the situation there now, it was worth it to go to war in Iraq, 49 percent said no. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3 percent. That's down from 53 percent support in the first half of January and about 70-plus percent various polls showed one year ago.

Kerry Pledges Troop Support

Kerry, who captured enough delegates in the Illinois primary on Tuesday night to guarantee the Democratic presidential nomination, also unveiled a plan for a "bill of rights" for military families. He vowed never again would partners give their soldier-spouses bulletproof vests as Valentine's Day gifts.

"I can tell you right now: in a Kerry Administration, no one will be getting body armor as a gift from a loved one; it will come from the Armed Forces of the United States of America. We will supply our troops with everything they need," he said.

In his proposed bill of rights, Kerry promised to allow family members of those killed in action to remain in military housing for up to a year afterwards, and to allow reservists on active duty to make penalty-free withdrawals from their IRAs.

Kerry also claimed the Bush administration has spread the Armed Forces too thin and left the United States with a "weaker military in some respects than we ought to be."

He accused the Bush administration of "arrogant policies" that have gotten the nation "bogged down in Iraq."

"We have to return more effectively to the international community, and share authority, share the burdens with other nations and, importantly, try to find what we should have found in the first place: a way to share the cost for the American taxpayer. We need to use the tools of diplomacy as well as the tools of war," he said.

Cheney responded that Kerry keeps changing his mind — opposing the first war in Iraq but then supporting regime change in Iraq in 1998. Kerry voted to authorize war in Iraq in October 2002, but against the emergency funding bill in 2003. Cheney said Kerry's strong approach has been replaced with a self-description as an anti-war candidate who has regularly insulted U.S. allies for being hangers-on and not legitimate fighters in the war on terror.

"If such dismissive terms are the vernacular of the golden age of diplomacy Senator Kerry promises, we are left to wonder which nations would care to join any future coalition. He speaks as if only those who openly oppose America's objectives have a chance of earning his respect," Cheney said.

The vice president also characterized Kerry's approach to terror as one of appeasement in which terrorists would have been handled with legal action the way the Clinton administration prosecuted the leader of the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. He suggested Kerry does not understand America's enemies.

"A good defense is not enough ... such an enemy cannot be deterred, contained or negotiated with -- it can only be destroyed," Cheney said. "That, ladies and gentlemen, is the business at hand.

"American policy must be clear and consistent in its purposes. And American leaders -- above all the commander in chief -- must be confident in our nation's cause, and unwavering until the danger to our people is fully and finally removed."

When Surrogates Attack

As Kerry called for more benefits for veterans and soldiers, Bush spokesman Terry Holt told Fox News that the campaign intended to continue raising Kerry's record in the Senate on national security and defense policy.

"His record speaks a lot to how he'll be as president," Holt said. "If he's weak on security, we need to know that to know how he'll handle the war on terror."

"John Kerry's rhetoric is completely detached from the reality of his voting record," added Bush-Cheney spokesman Steve Schmidt.

Citing Kerry's votes against pay increases for military personnel, military housing, body armor, armored Humvees and health care benefits for reservists, Schmidt said, "Almost everything he claimed to support in his speech he has voted against when it counted on the Senate floor.

Former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who is Kerry's national campaign chairwoman, said Cheney's attempts to go negative on Kerry do not distract people from the scenes of carnage that played out on television screens on Thursday.

"Dick Cheney has emerged from his bunker to engage in partisan attacks. What happened today in Baghdad is a painful reminder that our work in rebuilding in Iraq is far from over," she said. The split screen image of the attack in Baghdad and the political attack from Mr. Cheney demonstrates the urgent need for the president, the vice president, and the secretary of state to stop playing politics and fix a failed and flawed go-it-alone policy that is making Iraq more dangerous for our soldiers." 

Fox News' James Rosen and Sharon Kehnemui and The Associated Press contributed to this report.