President Bush is playing politics with the war on terror in a "shameful and irresponsible" effort to scare voters into re-electing him, Democratic challenger John Kerry (search) said Thursday.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Kerry responded to a statement Vice President Dick Cheney made in Des Moines earlier this week that if voters made the "wrong choice" in November it could lead to another major attack by terrorists.

"George Bush refused to contradict that comment or walk away from it yesterday," Kerry said in the interview.

"George Bush and Dick Cheney (search) are engaging in shameful and irresponsible and outrageous behavior in trying to play the politics of fear and exploit the war on terror," he said. "I think the American people are fed up and tired about that kind of campaigning."

Kerry, who has lost ground in public opinion polls recently, said he had faced a tough period in which the Republicans were able to outspend him on political ads because of the timing of the two political conventions. Kerry claimed the Democratic nomination in late July and has been limited to spending federal matching money since then.

"We've lived through a couple months where we've had a huge financial disadvantage to the Republicans because of the convention timing," Kerry said.

Noting that he had won Iowa's precinct caucuses in January after trailing earlier, he said "we can win this election the same way."

The interview followed a public round-table discussion in which he sought to turn the campaign focus to health care issues that he said are crucial to the lives of most voters.

At that event, he said Bush has failed to hold down rising health care costs during his four years in office, citing a new report that showed a double-digit increase in insurance premiums for the fourth year in a row.

"Health care just has this unlimited ability to keep going up every year, and people can't keep up with it. President Bush for four years has had an opportunity to try to deal with this, and he has no plan at all," Kerry said.

"In fact, he's been busy losing people's coverage."

Kerry also pointed to a record increase in Medicare premiums while he talked about health care with several hundred voters at a medical center in Iowa. Democrat Al Gore captured the state's seven electoral votes in 2000 by less than 5,000 votes.

Robert Blendon, a health policy expert at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, said polls show that Iowa's relatively older population ranks health care higher in importance this election year than many other states.

"In Iowa, this will be important," Blendon said.

The nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation reported that employer-sponsored family health care premiums grew 11.2 percent for the year ending last spring. That was the fourth straight year of double-digit increases, though it was down from the 13.9 percent of the previous year.

At he same time, the percentage of workers receiving health care from their employer fell from 65 percent in 2001 to 61 percent in 2004.

Kerry says he wants to help more businesses offer health care by requiring the federal government pick up 75 percent of catastrophic health care costs, a plan the campaign estimates will lower premiums 10 percent on average.

He would give small businesses a tax credit to help employers bear the rising cost of health insurance.

The Massachusetts senator also wants to let Americans purchase lower cost drugs from Canada, a policy the Bush administration has been studying while expressing concern about a safe drug supply.

The Bush-Cheney campaign said the Democrat's health plans will do little to bring down the cost of health care.

"John Kerry has pledged to raise taxes for a trillion dollar health care plan that will put control in the hands of government without addressing costs," said spokesman Steve Schmidt. "The president's plan will actually reduce costs by curbing the frivolous lawsuits that Kerry has defended and by putting more power in the hands of doctors and patients."