WASHINGTON – President Bush headed to Fort Campbell (search) on Thursday to thank U.S. troops for their service in the war on terror and to exercise his presidential authority on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the start of military operations in Iraq and the dawn of an expected tough re-election campaign.
"America's indebted to you," Bush told soldiers during a speech intended to bolster his national security credentials as well as maintain troop morale during ongoing military operations.
About 20,000 troops have returned to the Kentucky military base since serving in Iraq. The president was also planning to spend time with survivors of some of the soldiers who died while serving in the war — Fort Campbell has lost the highest number of service members in the Iraq campaign, 65 of the 564 from the U.S. who have been killed so far in Iraq. Fort Campbell also lost seven soldiers in Afghanistan.
The president's appearance and remarks are a chance to get a leg up against his opponent, the presumptive Democrat nominee John Kerry (search). Both are positioning themselves as military men.
Polls show that voters approve by a 2-to-1 margin of Bush's handling of terrorism, but they are less confident about operations in Iraq.
Nonetheless, Kerry took time out from his efforts to chip away at that margin by taking a brief vacation Wednesday night to regain his strength for a long general election season. He also took the down time just as the president is launching a full-on offensive, using the power of his office on the first anniversary of the war in Iraq to make his argument on why the war on terror and its current front line in Iraq must continue to be fought without loss of any resolve.
Bush, who ate lunch with the troops and also visited with 46 of the families of slain servicemen and women, said there can be no compromise when it comes to fighting terrorism.
"There's no safety for any nation in a world that lives at the mercy of gangsters and mass murderers," the president said. "Eventually, there's no place to hide from the planted bombs or the far-worse weapons that terrorists seek."
"For the civilized world, there's only one path to safety," Bush said. "We will stay united and we will fight until this enemy is broken."
The president's comments came as the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign team launched a new television ad featuring a remark made by Kerry earlier this week during a campaign stop in West Virginia.
In it, the campaign accuses Kerry of waffling on military issues and criticizes the Massachusetts senator for voting against an $87 billion aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan last year.
Kerry is quoted from Tuesday saying, "I actually did vote for his $87 billion, before I voted against it." The senator was referring to a vote for an amendment to the original bill that would have paid for the supplemental bill by repealing the president's tax cuts.
Bush's campaign tacked that quote to the end of the West Virginia ad, which was edited slightly to make room for Kerry's remarks.
Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan responded to the latest dub, accusing the president of misleading the nation with the ad.
“John Kerry opposed a red inked, blank check on Bush’s failed Iraq policy," Meehan said. "John Kerry has fought in a war and understands the importance of shared sacrifices when our troops are risking their lives overseas. That’s why he tried to repeal the Bush tax breaks for wealthiest of Americans to pay for the supplemental funds."
On Wednesday, Kerry outlined a plan for a bill of rights for military families, and used the occasion to charge that Bush is spreading the armed forces too thin and leaving the United States "weaker militarily in some respects than we ought to be."
Kerry said the administration's "arrogant policies" had gotten the United States "bogged down in Iraq."
"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," Kerry said in a speech at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he was flanked by defense officials and diplomats from the Clinton administration.
"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.
That same day — as a huge explosive ripped through a Baghdad hotel, Vice President Dick Cheney (search) carried the mantle for the campaign's re-election, responding to Kerry's attacks by noting that Kerry opposed the first war in the Persian Gulf, but then voted for regime change in Iraq in 1998.
He also charged that Kerry voted to authorize war in October 2002, which Kerry now claims was a vote to authorize the threat of war, and then opposed the emergency funding bill for postwar operations that passed in October of last year.
"Whatever the explanation ... it is not an impressive record for someone who aspires to become commander in chief in this time of testing for our country," Cheney said during a speech at Ronald Reagan Library (search) in Simi Valley, Calif. "Senator Kerry has been one vote of 100 in the United States Senate and fortunately on matters of national security he was very often in the minority."
The vice president also questioned Kerry's description of coalition allies like Great Britain, Italy, Spain and others as having been "coerced" or "bribed" into joining last year's war effort.
Bush's spokesman said the president wanted to go to Fort Campbell to "express his gratitude on behalf of the nation to our troops and their families for their service and sacrifice.
"Our troops are defending our freedoms in the war on terrorism, and they're helping to make the world a safer place and to make America more secure," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Bush, who traveled Thursday with wife, first lady Laura Bush, has not been to Fort Campbell since Nov. 21, 2001, when he rallied the troops two months after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Fort Campbell has the third-largest military population in the Army.
Bush won the 2000 presidential race in Kentucky by a 57-41 ratio over Al Gore.
Fox News' James Rosen and the Associated Press contributed to this report.