MILWAUKEE – Presumptive Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) had only a passing comment on National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's (search) Sept. 11 commission testimony Thursday, troubling some Democrats who think he is giving up a prime chance to attack President Bush.
In the battleground state of Wisconsin, where he appeared with Gov. Jim Doyle to tout his economic plan at a town meeting, Kerry maintained the campaign equivalent of radio silence, saying that he plans to withhold judgment and comment on the commission's work until after the work is done.
"I don't want to violate a rule I have made for myself, which is that I am not going to comment on the 9/11 commission as testifying goes one by one by one," Kerry said, adding that he thinks any remarks would only add to the hyper-charged political atmosphere of the hearings.
"My hope is their testimony contributed to our finding out what we need to do to protect the security of our country," he said.
Some Democratic operatives in Washington express dismay that Kerry has not focused national attention on what Democrats consider the president's potential political vulnerabilities. They argue that Kerry could weaken the president's perceived advantage on security issues by criticizing the administration for failing to prevent the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
But Kerry's campaign advisers disagree with Democratic critics, embracing the political adage that one should never interrupt an opponent when he is struggling with a potential problem.
"He can afford and indeed profit, I think, politically by not mucking it up in the partisan race," said Fox News analyst and Democratic consultant Susan Estrich.
The latest Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll indicates that the race remains a statistical dead heat, and that over the last two weeks both Kerry and the president's favorable and unfavorable numbers have barely moved.
But Kerry didn't refrain from taking a swipe at Bush, who is spending the holiday weekend at his ranch in Texas.
"I notice President Bush is taking some days off down at Crawford, Texas, and I'm told that when he takes days off, you know, he totally relaxes," Kerry said. "He doesn't watch television, he doesn't read the newspapers, he doesn't make long-term plans, doesn't worry about the economy. I thought about that for a moment. I said, 'Sounds to me like it's just like life in Washington, doesn't it?"'
He also took the opportunity to criticize the Bush administration on the situation in Iraq (search), where military leaders are considering sending more troops to deal with a recent uptick in violence.
As Shiite militants took hostages from South Korea, Japan and Israel — all civilian relief workers and missionaries — Kerry blasted what he calls the administration's stubborn refusal to share international control.
"Why is the United States of America almost alone in carrying this burden and the risks which the world has a stake in?" he asked.
"I believe it is the role of the president of the United States to maximize the ability to be successful and to minimize the cost to the American people, both financially and in lives," Kerry said.
Kerry then suggested that Iraq won't be stable by the time the June 30 deadline arrives to hand over control of government to the Iraqis. He suggested that the president chose the date for political reasons and should renege on that commitment.
Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry should have spoken out against those who are waging violence in Iraq but that he chose instead to "play politics."
"John Kerry's political attacks are not a strategy to win the war on terror," Schmidt said.
Aides say Kerry views Iraq as a far more potent source of criticism on Bush foreign policy than the failure to foresee the Sept. 11 attacks. Asked during a question-and-answer session with the audience whether he would make "strong statements" against Bush's foreign policy and environmental record, Kerry replied that he hoped his next response was strong enough.
"George Bush and the Republicans in Washington today have run the most arrogant, inept, reckless and ideological foreign policy in the modern history of this country," he said.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.