Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) said Wednesday that in spite of deadly anthrax attacks and warnings of further biological assaults on the United States, significant gaps remain in the nation's preparations for bioterrorism.

"You need to prepare your public health facilities. You need to prepare your hospitals and all the immediate first responders. Many of them will tell you right now that despite the talk over the course of the last years, there has not been that kind of preparation," Kerry said in an interview with Associated Press Radio.

"I think we need to do a better job of preparing our homeland security," he said. "I'm not trying to scare people, obviously. I think we're all trying to be reasonable in our approaches here. But what I'm talking about is having a conversation with public health officials and first responders so that we can respond effectively if it were to happen."

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Kerry called bioterrorism second only to the nuclear threat. Asked by AP Radio how he would deal with North Korea and its nuclear arsenal, Kerry said he would hold direct, bilateral talks with North Korea just as President Clinton did to create a process for accountability even if it is flawed.

"You can't set up systems if you're not having real discussions. This administration has failed to have those real discussions," he said.

"And the truth is that the world is less safe today because the television cameras are no longer in that reactor, the inspectors are no longer there, the fuel rods are gone, and we now suspect that they have five to six bombs that they didn't have before. So you cannot say America is safer with a country that has developed weapons while this administration has failed to negotiate and failed to pressure," he said.

Kerry was meeting Wednesday with public health officials in Florida, a key state in the 2004 election and one he has visited 17 times since he began seeking the presidency. In remarks prepared for the meeting, the Massachusetts senator said the United States lacks a national strategy in its efforts to reduce the threat of a bioterrorist attack that could kill or endanger millions of Americans.

Envelopes laced with anthrax were mailed in fall 2001 to news media and government offices, including those of Sen. Tom Daschle (search), D-S.D., and Sen. Patrick Leahy (search), D-Vt. Five people died, among them an editor at a tabloid newspaper's Florida headquarters, and 17 were sickened. Those cases remain unsolved.

Kerry said that while funding for biopreparedness has increased, President Bush has proposed budget cuts in key areas. The Kerry campaign cited reports that the administration proposed cutting the state and local biopreparedness program by 11 percent, or $105 million, and trimming funding for biodefense countermeasures overall by $49 million.

Hospitals are overburdened, Kerry said, and essential drugs and vaccines have not been adequately developed. He said his plan to make health insurance more affordable and accessible will reduce lines in emergency rooms, relieve pressure on state budgets, and sharpen the focus on bioterrorism and other health issues.

"Too many hospitals and emergency rooms are overwhelmed, staggering beneath the everyday burdens of our broken health system," he said in prepared remarks. "And our states and cities and towns need leadership and guidance from Washington, not more of the same policy that says, 'Figure this out on your own."'

Steve Schmidt, spokesman for the Bush re-election campaign, rejected Kerry's assertions as "baseless and misleading," contending that the president has made an unprecedented commitment to research and development as a tool for combatting and blunting the effects of biological attacks.

Schmidt said Bush's budget proposal for 2005 includes $1.7 billion for biodefense research, far more than the $53 million allocated to biodefense research in 2001, the year of the final Clinton budget.

Kerry said as president he would appoint one person to oversee all bioterrorism programs, budgets and strategic priorities and to work with state and local leaders pursuing preparedness goals. Investing in education and research in new technologies can reduce casualties, control disease and save lives, he said.

The campaign said the International Association of EMT's and Paramedics (search), with 7,000 members in 14 states, endorsed Kerry.

On Tuesday, as part of the tour promoting his national security policies, Kerry promised to safeguard all existing nuclear weapons and materials by the end of his first term if elected.

He also pledged to reduce existing weapons stockpiles, halt production of the materials used to make them, end nuclear weapons programs in nations like North Korea and Iran, and halt the Bush administration's program to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. He said such a U.S. program would undermine U.S. efforts to persuade other countries to reduce their weapons stockpiles.