DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – President Bush (search) turned the tables Saturday on Sen. John Kerry (search), declaring "the best way to avoid the draft is to vote for me," and pledged to oppose mandatory military service. The Democrat stuck to domestic issues, blaming Bush for a shortage of flu vaccines.
Kerry also opposes a draft and has suggested that re-electing Bush would greatly increase the prospects for one. The president, fearing that young voters will be swayed by the charge, fired back, "The person talking about a draft is my opponent."
With new polls showing the race tied or Bush slightly ahead, both candidates found new ways to go negative while rallying supporters in the campaign's two most crucial states. The incumbent was in Florida, his challenger in Ohio.
Kerry accused Bush of missing signs that a flu vaccine shortage was imminent. The attack fit into a broader campaign theme — that on Iraq, the economy and many other matters, Bush is disconnected from problems facing Americans.
"What's happening with the flu vaccine is really an example of everything this administration does — deny it, pretend it's not there, and then try to hide it when it comes out and act surprised," Kerry said.
Campaigning in an area heavily dependent on the military, Bush said, "We will not have an all-volunteer army" before correcting himself. "Let me restate that," he continued. "We will not have a draft ... . The best way to avoid a draft is to vote for me."
Polls show that a majority of young voters believe Bush would reinstitute the draft, despite the president's denials.
Bush and Kerry tailored their appeals. The Democrat, a Catholic, went to Mass and picked up a hunting license — a pitch to Ohio's socially conservative Democrats motivated by values and gun rights.
Bush appealed to Florida's large Jewish population by signing a bill requiring the State Department to document attacks on Jews around the world. The department had opposed the measure, calling it unnecessary.
Upbeat backdrops — Bush appeared in rock-star fashion at a sports arena in Florida and Kerry greeted well-wishers on the porch of a farm in Ohio — contrasted with the sharply critical messages they conveyed to supporters.
Amid strobe lights and swirling smoke, Bush's campaign bus drove into a darkened sports arena in Sunrise, Fla., depositing the president on stage with red-white-and-blue lights flickering across a crowd of 10,000 supporters. He noted that a year ago Sunday his opponent voted against an $87 billion bill for military reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Senator Kerry apparently decided supporting the troops even while they were in harm's way was not as important as shoring up his own political position," Bush said.
Kerry, a four-term senator from Massachusetts, voted against the bill to protest Bush's policies on Iraq during the Democratic nomination fight. Kerry was trying to overtake anti-war candidate Howard Dean.
To a chorus of anti-Kerry boos, Bush accused his rival of playing politics with war: "At a time of great threat to our country, at a time of great challenge to the world, the commander in chief must stand on principle, not the shifting sands of political convenience."
Seeking political gain from the vaccine shortage, Kerry's campaign released a television ad that says Bush "failed to fix the problem."
"Millions of Americans won't get their flu shots, including seniors and children," Kerry said while also blasting Bush on joblessness. "We've got people standing in line for hours on end, some of them in their 70s and 80s, hoping to be among the lucky ones to get it."
A Bush spokesman accused Kerry of hypocrisy for criticizing the president after voting against a measure that would protect vaccine manufacturers from punitive damages.
Kerry hopes the issue cuts against Bush among women and the elderly, especially in Florida, where running mate John Edwards campaigned Saturday. Kerry himself was due in the state Sunday and Monday.
Bush narrowly won Florida after a disputed recount. He won Ohio with relative ease, but the state has lost 237,000 jobs since he took office.
Introducing Kerry in Xenia, Ohio, laid-off worker Mike Adams pulled his empty pockets out of his jeans and angrily challenged assertions that Bush's tax cuts have benefited the middle class. "I'd like him to tell me where that money is now," Adams said.
Both campaigns are marshaling armies of lawyers to prepare for the prospect of legal challenges in Florida, Ohio and several other states Election Day. Tom Josefiak, the Bush campaign's top lawyer, said Saturday "it may takes days or weeks" after Nov. 2 to determine the winner.