WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – President Bush (search) followed up the vice presidential debate Wednesday with a stinging rebuke of Democratic challenger John Kerry (search) on the War on Terror (search), the situation in Iraq and the nation's economy.
"I've led our country with principle and resolve and that's how I'll lead our nation for four more years," Bush said to enthusiastic applause.
Kerry is staying off the campaign trail Wednesday, preparing near Denver for the second presidential debate to be held Friday.
Bush's remarks Wednesday constituted the most extensive and direct attack he's made on Kerry. He said his rival has "a strategy of defeat" for Iraq and an economic program that would imperil America at home.
"My opponent is a tax-and-spend liberal. I'm a compassionate conservative," Bush said. "My opponent wants to empower government. I want to use government to empower people."
"The senator is proposing higher taxes on more than 900,000 small business owners," Bush continued. "My opponent is one of the few candidates in history to campaign on a pledge to raise taxes. And that's the kind of promise a politician from Massachusetts usually keeps."
The president defended his prosecution of the war against Saddam Hussein (search) and the bigger fight against terrorists. "There will be good days and bad days in the War on Terror ... we will stay in the fight until the fight is won," he said.
Sen. John Edwards, Kerry's vice presidential running mate, shot back Wednesday, saying that Bush was "completely out of touch with reality" about the Iraq war and the economy.
"He won't acknowledge the mess in Iraq. All you have to do is turn your television on," Edwards said at a rally in West Palm Beach, Fla. And, he added, "they still don't recognize that there's any problem with jobs and the economy" despite rising health care costs and record job losses.
"You can't fix these problems until you recognize there is a problem," the Democratic vice presidential nominee told a sign-waving audience in a warehouse at the Palm Beach County convention center. "They're in denial. They're in denial about everything."
Bush's appearance and delivery Wednesday were much better than his debate performance against Kerry last Thursday, and came amid new controversy over the White House's handling of the war in Iraq.
A new weapons report being released Wednesday is said to undercut Bush's rationale for going to war — that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that posed a threat not only to Iraq's immediate neighbors but to the United States as well.
The report concludes that Iraq began destroying its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons in 1991 with the first set of U.N. resolutions, and that Saddam's regime stood ready to kick-start its weapons programs once it had succeeded in convincing the world that it had complied with every last facet of the U.N. resolutions, and the severe sanctions against it had been lifted.
There is no evidence of WMD production in Iraq after 1991, the report says, but it would have been easy to restart the country's bioweapons program within months. The report also doesn't discount the possibility that Iraq moved stockpiles of weapons to Syria or elsewhere.
The president said, "My opponent's endless back-and-forth on Iraq is part of a larger misunderstanding. In the War on Terror, Senator Kerry is proposing policies and doctrines that would weaken America and make the world more dangerous."
Regarding the battle against terrorists, Bush said, "Senator Kerry approaches the war with a September the 10th mindset ... that any attack will be met with a swift and certain response. That was the mindset of the 1990s, while Al Qaeda was planning the attacks on America. After September the 11th, our object in the War on Terror is not to wait for the next attack and respond but to prevent attacks by taking the fight to the enemy."
Earlier this week, Paul Bremer, the former U.S. administrator in Iraq, said the United States had "paid a big price" for not having enough troops in the country after Saddam's fall from power. The remark provided further ammunition for Kerry, who argues that Bush has made a series of wrong choices in Iraq.
Before Bush gave the speech, Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said Bush was trying for a redo of last week's debate.
"His advisers have spent tens of millions of dollars on a fake John Kerry who they portrayed as weak on security," Singer said. "When they come face to face with the real John Kerry, they don't know what to do."
Bush's scowling and annoyed appearance in the debate was widely panned, prompting Bush's campaign to substitute the speech for a re-election event in Wilkes-Barre that was to focus on medical liability reform.
It was Bush's 38th presidential trip to Pennsylvania, where he has made the most visits since taking office. Bush lost the state to Democrat Al Gore by fewer than 5,000 votes in 2000, and is he working hard to deny Kerry a victory there. Kerry has visited the state 15 times this year. Recent polls show a tight race in the state.
In the final month of campaigning before the Nov. 2 election, both candidates are hitting a new level of harsh rhetoric.
This week, Bush said Kerry's foreign policy stands "are dangerous for world peace" and Kerry countered that Bush was resorting to a "blanket scare tactic."
Political experts see alarm bells ringing inside the Bush re-election effort.
When a campaign "makes changes like this they're worried about something and they have a lot to worry about right now," said David Rohde, who teaches political science at Michigan State University.
"Bush had the chance to put the race away in the last debate. That didn't happen," he said. "The situation is particularly demanding for the administration now because of the fact there are only four weeks left to go."
FOX News' Ian McCaleb and The Associated Press contributed to this report.