President Bush and Sen. John Kerry swapped charges over a loomingand the future of Social Security as they vied for the all-important senior vote two weeks before Election Day.
The two rivals for the White House focused on domestic issues as Vice President Dick Cheney raised the terrifying specter of terrorists attacking U.S. cities with nuclear weapons. "You've got to get your mind around that concept," he said, suggesting Kerry couldn't cope with the threat.
Kerry criticized Mr. Bush over the nation's supply of flu vaccine, and said the president had presided over a four-year "all-out assault" on Social Security. The four-term Massachusetts senator said the vaccine shortage was a result of a "failure of leadership" by the man in the White House.
"If you can't get flu vaccines to Americans how are you going to protect them against bioterrorism?" Kerry said in an NPR News interview. "If you can't get flu vaccines to Americans, what kind of health care program (are) you running?
Campaigning in Florida during the day, Mr. Bush said the problem was nothing of the sort. He blamed a "major manufacturing defect" for the shortage, and sought to reassure his audience at the same time senior administration health officials worked to allay public concerns.
British regulators recently shut down shipments from Chiron Corp., cutting the U.S. supply of flu shots almost in half.
"Our government is doing everything possible to help older Americans and children get their shots," Mr. Bush said, a few hours before a top National Institutes of Health official said more than a million doses may be available from a Canadian supplier.
As for Social Security, Kerry said the president's economic policies have put it "on a dangerous road. Now he's asking for another four years to privatize the program, and undo the sacred compact we've made with our seniors," the Democrat said in an appearance in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
"I will not privatize Social Security. I will not cut benefits. I will not raise the retirement age," he said. "Because when you've worked hard for a lifetime, America owes you what you've earned."
It was an expansion of charges Kerry first made on Sunday. This time, Mr. Bush rebutted them even before the senator spoke.
Urging his audiences to "reject the politics of fear" at the ballot box, the president sought to turn the issue to his own advantage. Seniors will continue to get their checks, he said, "no matter what they (Democrats) try to tell you." And the program is "in pretty good shape" for the Baby Boomers, he added.
"To make sure Social Security is around when our children grow up, we must allow younger workers to save some of their own payroll taxes in a personal savings account that earns better interest, a personal savings account they call their own and an account the government cannot take away," Mr. Bush said.
Cheney was in Carroll, Ohio, when he raised the specter of terrorists with biological, chemical or even nuclear weapons attacking U.S. cities.
Kerry is trying to persuade voters he would be the same type of "tough, aggressive" leader as Mr. Bush in the fight against terrorism, the vice president said. "I don't believe it."
Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, was in New Hampshire, where he accused the Republicans of trying to scare the voters into re-electing the president. "While they campaign on fear, we're going to talk about the facts," he said.
National polls showed the race remains tight. Areleased Monday had Mr. Bush leading Kerry 47-45 among likely voters, with Ralph Nader taking 2 percent. The lead is within the poll's margin of error.
A Washington Post tracking poll of 1,656 likely voters gave Mr. Bush a 50-47 percent lead, within the 3-point margin of error. But the Post had Kerry ahead 50-46 percent in 13 battleground states.
Separate polls in three key swing states also gave the Democrat a slim lead. In Florida, Kerry had a 1-point edge over Mr. Bush, 45-44 percent, according to a University of North Florida poll. In New Jersey, a state Democrat Al Gore won easily in 2000, Kerry had a 49-45 percent advantage in the latest Quinnipiac poll. And in Ohio, which Mr. Bush won four years ago, Kerry was leading 48-46 percent.
Meanwhile, the Kerry campaign could be getting some last-minute help from a political heavyweight.
Kerry told an interviewer it's possible former President Bill Clinton may campaign for him in the final two weeks before Election Day. Mr. Clinton is recovering from heart surgery, and Kerry officials have eagerly been awaiting word on whether he's recovered enough to hit the campaign trail.