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Bush, Kerry lob post-debate assaults
US President Bush criticized Sen. John Kerry as a liberal trying to hide from his own record Thursday as the two men entered the last, post-debate lap of a close race for the White House. The Democratic challenger said his rival "fights, literally, for the privileged few."
"I believe we need a president who will fight for the great middle class and for those who are struggling to join it," Kerry added.
And there were veiled hints of concern within the Bush high command as the campaign entered what the president called a "sprint to the finish." Marc Racicot, campaign chairman, told reporters the Democratic challenger had helped himself during the face-to-face encounters. "I think it was temporary," Racicot said.
Kerry and Bush both campaigned in Nevada during the day, a state with five electoral votes and one of roughly a dozen still competitive in the final days of the race.
The four-term Massachusetts senator unleashed an attack on the Medicare legislation that Bush signed into law last year, saying it was "full of empty promises and special interest giveaways."
Kerry also faulted the prescription drug card benefit that took effect this year, a transition to a full overhaul of the Medicare program that he said does little to lower the cost of drugs.
"The truth is that after doing nothing to really lower the cost of prescription drugs for you, the president is now telling you that he solved the problem. Right. And those weapons of mass destruction are going to be found any day now," he said with sarcasm.
Bush's after-debate message was simple — Kerry is a liberal who will raise taxes, increase government spending, stick with the status quo on Social Security, and give other countries too much say in the use of U.S. troops overseas.
"My opponent wants to move in the direction of government-run health care," the president added. "I believe health decisions ought to be made by doctors and patients, not officials in Washington, D.C."
Attempting to pin the liberal label on Kerry, he added, "Now he dismisses that as a label. Must have seen it differently when he said to a newspaper, 'I'm a liberal and proud of it.'"
Apart from the public rhetoric, the two sides readied their campaign endgame strategies.
For Bush, according to White House officials, that will mean stepping up his effort to portray Kerry as a flip-flopper, a liberal with few accomplishments in the Senate. At the same time, officials said the president will play to one of his campaign strengths — his wartime leadership. He intends to travel to New Jersey next week to deliver what aides call a major address on terrorism.
The state hasn't voted for a Republican since the presidential election in 1988, but New Jersey is just across the river from New York City and it suffered a significant loss of life when terrorists struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Kerry, having performed well in the debates, hopes to use the final 2 1/2 weeks of the campaign to persuade voters that he is a safe replacement for Bush in an era of terrorism. The effort will include a series of speeches designed to cast the senator as the champion of the middle class — as he said during the day — and depict Bush as the defender of the elite.
Final figures showed that 51 million Americans watched at least part of the final presidential debate.
While the candidates were ready to move on, one controversy simmered. Both Cheney and his wife criticized Kerry for having referred to Mary Cheney's sexuality during the debate.
"You saw a man who will do and say anything to get elected," the vice president said in Fort Myers, Fla. "And I am not just speaking as a father here, although I am a pretty angry father."
Kerry's allies defended the remark.
"In bringing up Mary Cheney, Kerry expressed the human side of this issue, an issue that Bush has worked so hard to politicize to his advantage at the cost of families," said Alice Whitman Leeds of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays.
The issue flared after the two rivals were asked during the debate to say whether they viewed homosexuality as a choice.
Bush said he didn't know.
"We're all God's children," Kerry said. "And I think if you were to talk to Dick Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, she would tell you that she's being who she was. She's being who she was born as. I think if you talk to anybody, it's not a choice."
Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards, stepped into the dispute.
Speaking of Mrs. Cheney, she said, "She's overreacted to this and treated it as if it's shameful to have this discussion. ... I think that it indicates a certain amount of shame with respect to her daughter's sexual preferences."
Secretary of State Colin Powell, again stepping into the presidential debate, questioned Kerry's assertions that if he were president the allies would be more amenable to cooperating with the United States in Iraq.
"I am not sure he can back them up," Powell said on the Fox News Channel.