JOPLIN, Mo. – Vice President Dick Cheney (search) said Wednesday that Democratic Sen. John Kerry (search) lacks "deeply held convictions about right and wrong" as he argued that voters would make a grave mistake if they replaced the current commander in chief.
Campaigning for the Bush-Cheney ticket in this swing state, the vice president opened the session with some of his harshest criticism of Kerry, saying he wouldn't trust the four-term lawmaker to make decisions about going to war.
"We don't want to turn that responsibility over to somebody who doesn't have deeply held convictions about right and wrong," Cheney said. "And I must say, I look at the record of our opponents. There is a lot of hesitation and uncertainty."
Separately, the Bush-Cheney campaign (search) released a statement from the vice president in which he said Kerry "has had some difficulty explaining where he stands on the liberation of Iraq."
Kerry voted in October 2002 to give President Bush the authority to wage war but has been critical of the president's handling of the conflict, arguing that the incumbent failed to assemble strong allied support and rushed to war on faulty intelligence.
Questioned Monday about whether he stands by the vote despite the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, Kerry said he did, but added that Bush used the authority poorly, with little thought to an end game.
"John Kerry is caught in a tangled web of all his shifts and changes. We need a commander in chief who is steady and steadfast," Cheney said.
Responding to the criticism, Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said, "The sad fact is that Dick Cheney spends his time on the campaign trail launching vitriolic attacks because this White House has no record to run on."
Cheney is on a three-state Midwest campaign swing to states where Kerry is even or holds a small edge. The race is dead even in Missouri, but Kerry and running mate John Edwards lead Bush-Cheney by a small margin in Ohio, and a new poll in Michigan shows the Democrats up.
Bush won Missouri in 2000 and has been back 20 times since. Kerry has visited six times in 2004.
Cheney used his appearance to defend the White House policy limiting federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, saying Bush would continue to defend "the culture of life" in a second term.
"I don't think there should be any doubt in anybody's mind where he's headed when it comes to those kind of issues. I think he's been rock solid on it," Cheney said during a 45-minute question-and-answer session in which he was accompanied by his wife, Lynne.
The questions, all friendly, came from an invitation-only crowd of about 500 people chosen by local Republican leaders in this conservative swath in southwest Missouri.
Scientists say the research holds promise for curing a host of diseases, but it requires the destruction of days-old human embryos, which some equate to the killing of human life. Bush's policy allows federal funding for research using embryos that were destroyed before he set his policy.
Polls show that most Americans support the research and Democrats are trying to use it to attract undecided voters.
The Cheneys noted this was the first time they conducted a question-and-answer session as a pair.
"It's a test of our marriage," Mrs. Cheney joked.
"We may be in for a surprise," the vice president said.
Asked about the economy, Cheney suggested that last week's statistics on employment, showing fewer people working than expected, were not an accurate measure of how many people are working.
Last week, the government reported that just 32,000 net jobs were added in July, the smallest gain in hiring since December. Economists think this measures the health of the economy better than the alternate statistic, a survey of households, that Cheney cited.
"We feel pretty good about things," Cheney said. The next step, he said, is to make the tax cuts permanent. "That will be right at the top of our agenda going forward," he said.
Outside the hand-picked crowd, even in this conservative part of the state, Cheney had his critics. But they knew they were in the minority.
"I wish I could tell you how we really feel -- they'd throw us out," said Leroy Jackson of Joplin, retired from a trucking company, who was talking politics with his wife over eggs at Denny's.