WASHINGTON – Democrat John Kerry (search) accused President Bush (search) on Monday of sending U.S. troops to the "wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" and said he'd try to bring them all home in four years. Bush rebuked him for taking "yet another new position" on the war.
Iraq (search) overshadowed the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the fall campaign and its time-honored emphasis on jobs, as Kerry delivered some of his harshest rhetoric against Bush's handling of the war and highlighted its economic costs. The Democrat set, for the first time, a tentative time frame for completing a withdrawal that Republican opponents say is too soon even to begin.
"We want those troops home, and my goal would be to try to get them home in my first term," Kerry said, speaking to a fellow Vietnam War (search) veteran at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania who had asked about a timetable for withdrawal. Bush has not provided a specific timetable for withdrawal.
Bush, campaigning in southeast Missouri, described Kerry's attack as the product of chronic equivocation combined with a shake up of his advisers.
"After voting for the war, but against funding it, after saying he would have voted for the war even knowing everything we know today, my opponent woke up this morning with new campaign advisers and yet another new position," Bush told Missouri voters.
Kerry spoke with former President Clinton (search) in a lengthy phone call during the weekend, hearing advice that he go hard after Bush's record. Clinton White House aides are taking a larger role in the campaign, and Kerry moved longtime adviser John Sasso into a top spot.
On Iraq, "suddenly he's against it again," Bush said. "No matter how many times Senator Kerry changes his mind, it was right for America and it's right for America now that Saddam Hussein is no longer in power."
Both sides sparred over employment, too, in tours of the heartland by the presidential candidates and their running mates covering eight states in all.
Speaking at the Minnesota State Fair, Vice President Dick Cheney declared low taxes are the key to robust employment. Kerry asserted that an employment surge over the last year has been driven by jobs that pay poorly and offer worse benefits and less security than jobs of old.
The Labor Department put out a rosy report on employment, declaring "prospects for job creation remain bright," and noting gains in most sectors in recent months.
Bush is struggling to escape the distinction of being the first president since the Depression-era Herbert Hoover to finish a term with job losses. With 1.7 million jobs created over the last year, the economy is still down 913,000 jobs overall since he took office.
With the quantity of jobs rising, Kerry turned to their quality. "If you want four more years of your wages falling ... if you want four more years of losing jobs overseas and replacing them with jobs that pay $9,000 less than the jobs you had before, then you should go vote for George Bush," Kerry said in Pennsylvania.
Kerry cited a study by the liberal Economic Policy Institute from January indicating jobs in growing industries pay $8,848 less on average than jobs in fading industries. One-third of the new jobs are for janitors, fast-food workers and temporary employees, and they are less likely to offer health insurance than other work, his campaign said.
Polls indicate Bush and Kerry are running evenly in four of the states the candidates were visiting Monday — Minnesota, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The four offer a combined 58 electoral votes, more than 20 percent of the total needed to win.
Nationally, Bush led Kerry by 7 points — 52 percent to 45 percent — while independent Ralph Nader had 1 percent in a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll taken over the weekend and released Monday. Bush had 11-point leads in two polls taken last week during and right after the GOP convention.
Kerry stopped in Racine, W.Va., to make common cause with coal miners and to answer, in blistering tones, a visit by Bush on Sunday, when the president said the Democrat's plan to raise taxes on the richest Americans would stifle job growth.
"It all comes down to one letter — W," Kerry said, meaning the initial in George W. Bush. "And the W stands for wrong," he said. "The W stands for wrong choices, wrong judgment, wrong priorities, wrong direction for our country."
Kerry said last month he would try to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq within his first six months in office, conditioning that goal on getting more assistance from other countries. But he's avoided until now laying out a possible end game.
He called the president's coalition in Iraq "the phoniest thing I ever heard" and played up the money spent on Iraq that could have gone to domestic needs.
"This president rushed to war without a plan to win the peace, and he's cost all of you $200 billion that could have gone to schools, could have gone to health care, could have gone to prescription drugs, could have gone to our Social Security," he said.
Cheney, moving on to Iowa, took issue with Kerry's remark about a phony coalition. "Demeaning our allies is an interesting approach for someone seeking the presidency," the vice president told about 500 supporters at a barbecue along the shores of Clear Lake. "They deserve our respect, not insults."