President Bush told voters in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania Friday that the choice in this election boils down to who can keep Americans safer from terrorists and contended Democrat John Kerry was not up to the task.
Kerry, meanwhile, courted women voters during a campaign stop in Wisconsin, where he accused the Bush administration of ignoring women's concerns.
"At their jobs and at home, no one in this White House understands the challenges that they face," the Massachusetts senator said. "No matter how tough it gets, no one in the White House seems to be listening."
The charges came as the candidates battled over about a dozen states that remain competitive with less than two weeks of campaigning to go.
In a new version of his stump speech in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Mr. Bush said families face five choices of "great consequence" in the election — security, home budgets, quality of life, retirement and values — but argued that security tops the list.
"All progress on every other issue depends on the safety of our citizens," Mr. Bush told supporters in a retooled stump speech. "Americans will go to the polls in a time of war and ongoing threat to our country."
The visit to Pennsylvania was Mr. Bush's second in two days and the 41st of his presidency, underscoring its importance to his election strategy. The president was also hitting two other big battleground prizes on Friday – Ohio and Florida. Together, the three states account for one-fourth of the 270 electoral votes needed for victory.
Pennsylvania is the only one of the three that Mr. Bush lost to Democrat Al Gore in 2000. A new poll of likely voters in Pennsylvania found 51 percent supporting Kerry and 46 percent favoring Mr. Bush.
A new national poll by the Associated Press shows the race a statistical tie – 49 percent for the Kerry and 46 for the president. The three-point margin was inside the survey's margin of error. Other recent polls show a similarly close race.
Kerry was reaching out to working women as the campaign started to motivate the party's traditionally strongest supporters to come out and vote on Nov. 2. An AP poll showed that among likely voters, Kerry had support from 55 percent of women while Mr. Bush had 40 percent.
After being introduced by Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, Kerry told the mostly female audience in Milwaukee that he would reverse losses they suffered financially and educationally under the Republican administration.
"President Bush talks about an ownership society," said Kerry. "Now we know what he really means: 'Sorry, you're on your own.'"
Kerry said he wants to close the gap between wages paid to men and women and raise the minimum wage to $7 an hour. He also criticized the president for not allocating enough money for public schools and threatening women's retirements by having "raided the Social Security trust fund to pay for tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans."
In response, Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said Kerry has voted the wrong way for American women and their families during his 20 years in the Senate.
"John Kerry talks about making life better for women, but he voted for higher taxes on their gas. He voted for higher taxes on their Social Security benefits. He even voted for higher taxes on their children and their marriages," Schmidt said.
Kerry was headed from Wisconsin to a rally Friday evening in Reno, Nevada.
In Pennsylvania, Mr. Bush reminded voters that this is the first election since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, and said the threat has not subsided.
"The enemies who killed thousands of innocent people are still dangerous and determined to strike us again," he said. If terrorists like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi weren't busy fighting American forces in Iraq, Mr. Bush asked sarcastically, does Kerry think they'd be "opening a small business?"
Mr. Bush said Kerry considers the war on terror primarily a law enforcement and intelligence-gathering operation, a frequent charge on the campaign trail that Kerry denies. One of Kerry's foreign policy advisers likened it to the metaphorical "war on poverty," Mr. Bush said.
"I've got news," the president said. "Anyone who thinks we're fighting a metaphor does not understand the enemy we face and has no idea how to win the war and keep America secure."
Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said Mr. Bush's new stump speech is as "dishonest as the old one" and added, "Voting for George Bush basically means voting for the same policies that have taken us in the wrong direction."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Friday he disagreed with Mr. Bush's assertion that Kerry had "a fundamental misunderstanding" of the war in Iraq but reaffirmed his support for the president as better qualified than Kerry to lead the United States in the war on terrorism.
"The rhetoric in this campaign is as bad on both sides or worse than I've ever seen it on both sides," McCain said on "Today" on NBC. "I could criticize many of the things that Senator Kerry has said about President Bush and vice versa, and I don't think it helps, frankly, the level of the campaign."
The campaign ad wars also continued Friday as the Bush campaign released a new commercial renewing its charge that Kerry is weak on national security. The spot shows wolves prowling in a dense forest as a narrator says, "Weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm."
Kerry running mate John Edwards, in Boynton Beach, Fla., said Mr. Bush had "stooped so low" that he was "continuing to try to scare America in his speeches and ads in a despicable and contemptible way."
The Democratic Party planned a response ad that features a soaring eagle and an ostrich with its head in the sand. The ad asks: "Given the choice, in these challenging times, shouldn't we be the eagle again?"