POPLAR BLUFF, MO. – President Bush (search) told Missouri voters Monday that new unemployment figures suggest "the economy is strong and getting stronger" and sharply criticized Democratic rival John Kerry (search) for taking "yet another new position" on Iraq.
Campaigning in Missouri on Labor Day, Bush cheered the dip last month in the nation's unemployment rate to 5.4 percent. The economy is rebounding, but unless 900,000 jobs are created in the next two months, the president will head into Election Day saddled with being the first president since Herbert Hoover (search) to lose jobs under his watch.
"This economy, because of our tax relief and because we have great people in this country who refuse to be intimidated, who believe in the future, is strong and is getting stronger," Bush said at the rally in southeast Missouri that was dampened by a steady rain.
Yet, an estimated 8 million Americans remain out of work this Labor Day and the job market remains a political vulnerability for the president, especially in hard-hit states like Missouri.
Kerry, whose Labor Day schedule included stops in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, argued the recovery is the weakest on record for job creation and those new jobs pay less and offer fewer benefits.
But the two candidates spent much of the day sparring on Iraq.
Toppling Saddam Hussein was "right for America," Bush said, rebutting Kerry's claim that involvement in Iraq (search) has left the United States with a heavy burden of casualties and a bundle of bills.
Bush accused Kerry of wavering on the war, adding: "My opponent woke up this morning with new campaign advisers and yet another new position" on Iraq.
"Suddenly he's against it again," Bush said of Kerry's position on Iraq. "No matter how many times Senator Kerry changes his mind, it was right for America then and it's right for America now if Saddam Hussein is no longer in power."
Kerry, on his own Labor Day tour of Midwestern states, Kerry faulted Bush on almost every aspect of his move toward war in Iraq. He told voters that, if elected, he would try to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq before his first term was over.
"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," Kerry said in Canonsburg, Pa. "It's the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time."
During his stop in Poplar Bluff, the president also reiterated his pledge to work toward simplifying the tax code in his second term. He said he would lead a bipartisan team to simplify the tax code, which he called "a complicated mess."
On Tuesday, Bush planned to campaign again in Missouri.