PHILADELPHIA – John Kerry (search) slammed President Bush on Friday for pursuing Saddam Hussein (search) more aggressively than Sept. 11 mastermind Usama bin Laden (search) — a move that the Democratic presidential hopeful says has made America less secure.
The Massachusetts senator also argued that going that route has made defeating terrorism more difficult.
"The invasion of Iraq was a profound diversion from the battle against our greatest enemy, Al Qaeda (search)," Kerry said in a campaign speech at Temple University. "There's just no question about it. The president's misjudgment, miscalculation and mismanagement of the war in Iraq all make the War on Terror harder to win."
Meanwhile, during a campaign stop in Wisconsin, Bush said Kerry wrongly questioned the credibility of Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search) and "you can't lead this country" while undercutting an ally.
After Allawi and Bush on Thursday cited progress made in Iraq, Kerry said the two leaders were merely putting the "best face" on a Bush administration policy in Iraq that has failed.
"This brave man came to our country to talk about how he's risking his life for a free Iraq, which helps America," Bush said Friday in the battleground state. "And Senator Kerry held a press conference and questioned Mr. Allawi's credibility. You can't lead this country if your ally in Iraq feels like you question his credibility."
Bush was also campaigning Friday in Racine, Wis. By evening, Bush was to be at his Crawford, Texas, ranch for a weekend of cramming for next Thursday's debate with Kerry, the first of the presidential campaign.
Kerry said Iraq has become a haven for terrorists since the war, and he offered a strategy to contain terrorism while drawing a sharp distinction between his and the president's views on national security.
"George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority. I would have made Usama bin Laden the priority," Kerry said. "I will finish the job in Iraq and I will refocus our energies on the real War on Terror."
He also said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials are "living in a fantasy world of spin" in offering rosier pictures of the situation in Iraq.
But Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman Reed Dickens told FOX News that the plans Kerry offered are nothing more than rhetoric.
"Today John Kerry offered some repackaged proposals -- things the president has already implemented," Reed said.
While campaigning Friday in Lafayette, La., Vice President Dick Cheney told supporters, "John Kerry is trying to tear down and trash all the good that has been accomplished."
Cheney also said that John Kerry would be a weak opponent for terrorists or other enemies and that he "has given every indication of a lack of resolve and conviction to prevail" in Iraq.
"America faces a choice between a strong and a steadfast president and his opponent who seems to adopt a new position every day," Cheney said.
Distracted When It Comes to Fighting Terrorism?
To douse the spread of terrorism, Kerry proposed policies aimed at denying individuals and groups the ability to organize and attack. Kerry said he would build a better military and intelligence apparatus to go after enemies, deny terrorists weapons and financing, move against worldwide terrorist havens and recruitment centers and promote freedom and democracy in Muslim nations.
The Bush-Cheney campaign said the president is already following that course. "He is copying the president's plan at the same time he is attacking the president," said spokesman Steve Schmidt.
Kerry has repeatedly argued that the war in Iraq has distracted attention and resources from the pursuit of terrorists, including bin Laden.
"John Kerry will not have attention deficit disorder when it comes to finishing the job in getting bin Laden and the Al Qaeda network," former Clinton White House counsel Jack Quinn told FOX News on Friday. "This administration left to a bunch of corrupt warlords the job of getting Al Qaeda ... John Kerry and his administration will not do that."
Quinn added: "We are still under threat and this country is less safe, not more safe, because of their [Bush administration's] distraction in the last year and a half."
But Brad Blakeman, former deputy assistant to Bush, argued that "nothing could be farther from the truth ... the Democrats want to scare the American people and destroy his [Bush's] record."
The Bush-Cheney campaign said Kerry has held conflicting positions on that point. They point to instances where Kerry said the former Iraqi leader acted like a terrorist and said that the War on Terrorism should be seen as an operation bigger than the conflict in Afghanistan.
Some observers say Kerry may be a little too pessimistic in his doom-and-gloom forecasts for Iraq.
"There's absolutely a risk of that and there are Democrats who are worried about that," said Liz Marlantes of the Christian Science Monitor. "Even if Americans end up agreeing with Kerry's assessment that things are a mess in Iraq, they still may be looking for a candidate who thinks he can turn things around."
According to a FOX News/Opinion Dynamics poll released this week, voters continue to say Bush would do a better job handling the situation in Iraq, by 48 percent to 37 percent, and he also keeps the advantage on handling the War on Terrorism (51 percent to 36 percent).
But the Kerry camp says Americans are tuning in to Kerry's message and realizing how important it is to handle the Iraq issue with different gloves.
"I think he's made a very clear case to the American voters ... as to why he'd do a better job as commander in chief," Kerry senior adviser Michael Meehan told FOX News on Friday. "I think American voters are responding to John Kerry's message here ... about why it's important to focus on the War on Terror and be very single-minded about it and to have a plan for the peace."
Bush "doesn't have a plan ... because he's gone it alone," Meehan added.
Kerry visited the Pennsylvania battleground before a quick trip home to Boston and then several days spent preparing for the presidential debates. Kerry told the Dispatch that he has to present himself "clearly, forcefully to the American people with a clear set of priorities."
"I think a lot of people will tune in," he said. "There are undecideds. A lot of folks will try to measure our character and our vision, so I think it's an important moment."
FOX News' Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.