PALM BEACH, Fla. – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) on Monday vowed to end a "sweetheart relationship" that allows money to flow through Arab countries to terrorist groups and criticized President Bush over a report that he had struck a deal with Saudi officials to lower gasoline prices before the election.
"If ... it is true that gas supplies and prices in America are tied to the American election, tied to a secret White House deal, that is outrageous and unacceptable to the American people," Kerry said during a campaign stop in Florida. "If this sounds wrong to you, that's because it is fundamentally wrong."
Kerry appealed for support from Jewish voters in Florida, which has the fifth-highest percentage of Jewish population in the United States. The state also determined the outcome of the 2000 election.
Kerry and Florida Sens. Bob Graham and Bill Nelson were joined by Sen. Joe Lieberman (search) of Connecticut, who is Jewish and once was a Kerry rival for the nomination. The Bush campaign, in response, distributed to news media several Lieberman statements critical of Kerry from the primary race.
"I have a 100 percent record ... of supporting the special relationship and friendship that we have with Israel," Kerry said. "I can guarantee you that as president, I understand not just how we do that but also how we end this sweetheart relationship with a bunch of Arab countries that still allows money to move to Hamas (search), Hezbollah (search) and the Al Aqsa Brigade."
The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade (search), a violent offshoot of Yasser Arafat's mainstream Fatah, has been blamed for suicide bombings and other attacks in Israel. It was formed after the onset of hostilities in 2000.
While Kerry pointed the finger of blame at a list of Arab countries he didn't name, spokesman David Wade said he was referring primarily to Saudi Arabia and accused Bush of walking away from Mideast peace efforts.
"He abandoned the Mideast peace process for the first 14 months of his administration," Wade said.
The Jewish vote in Florida traditionally trends Democratic, but Bush has shifted his stance on some key issues in recent days to positions appealing to those voters. Bush reversed U.S. policy and endorsed a plan by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) that would allow some settlers to hold onto land seized in the 1967 war.
CBS's "60 Minutes" reported Sunday night that Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward said Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, has promised Bush that Saudi Arabia will lower oil prices in the months before the election to ensure the U.S. economy is strong on Election Day.
"That's the Saudi pledge," Woodward told "60 Minutes" for a report on his book about the Iraq war, "Plan of Attack," to be released Tuesday. "Certainly over the summer or as we get closer to the election they could increase production several million barrels a day and the price would drop significantly."
Asked if he could describe conversations between the White House and Bandar about lowering oil prices before the election, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said only that Bandar had visited the White House on April 1 and pledged to protect the world economy from oil shocks. Bandar said Saudi Arabia would take actions to ensure that crude oil prices remain between $22 and $28 a barrel, ideally an average of $25, McClellan said.
"We've made our views very clear that prices should be determined by market forces, and that we are always in close contact with producers around the world on these issues to make sure that actions aren't taken that harm our consumers or harm our economy," McClellan said.
Kerry said he had his own plan for lowering gas prices. "And you know what the Number One priority of that plan was? Put pressure on the Saudis to increase production and lower the prices to America," he said.
Separately, Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., sent a letter to Bush seeking an explanation and saying, "our nation's economy is too important to suffer from high gasoline prices to suit the political timing of any presidential re-election campaign."
The Bush campaign has accused Kerry of supporting higher gas taxes, including a boost of 50 cents per gallon. Kerry voted in 1993 for an overall budget bill that included a 4.3-cent-per-gallon tax increase. Although he mentioned in a 1994 interview the idea of an additional tax of 50 cents per gallon, Kerry never offered legislation and has since rejected the idea.
Kerry spoke at a town meeting at Palm Beach Community College and at a fund-raising breakfast, raising $1 million at Florida events Sunday night and Monday. Officials said he was collecting another $1 million in Atlanta Monday night.