With far more than military hearts and minds at stake, the presidential contenders are clashing over who best stands for U.S. soldiers — President Bush accusing his opponent of "denigrating" them, Sen. John Kerry insisting "you don't honor American troops by putting them in greater danger than they ought to be."
The candidates all but climbed into uniform in their determination to identify with troops in Iraq, even as those men and women prepared for what could be awith heavy political implications back home.
In the campaign's closing days, a larger purpose is at work than making common cause with the armed forces. Mr. Bush and Kerry are raising overarching questions about the other's judgment under pressure, a tactic being carried forward into their tours of Midwestern battleground states Thursday and beyond.
Mr. Bush was stumping in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, in the reverse order of his Pennsylvania-Ohio-Michigan swing Wednesday that was capped by an early evening crowd of close to 20,000 at the Pontiac, Mich., Silverdome, one of the best turnouts of his campaign. Kerry was focusing on Ohio and Wisconsin before swinging south to spend Friday in Florida.
The Democrat kept up his drumbeat of criticism over the circumstances surrounding thein Iraq, and the president struck back by saying the senator simply does not know what happened there.
"A political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief," Mr. Bush told supporters Wednesday. "The senator is denigrating the action of our troops and commanders in the field without knowing the facts."
That brought a sharp rejoinder from Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards, campaigning in Kendall, Fla. "Aren't we sick and tired of George Bush and Dick Cheney using our troops as shields to protect their own jobs?" he said.
"Here's the truth, and the American people know it. Our troops, our military did their job. George Bush is not doing his job."
The accusations flew in staccato phrases.
"Dodging and bobbing and weaving," Kerry said to describe his view of Mr. Bush's response to the missing explosives and all else that has gone wrong in Iraq.
"Wait and see and cut and run," Mr. Bush said to describe his view of the Democrat's likely brand of crisis management.
In a spirited rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Kerry plugged his plans for health care, education and rural advancement. He said that as president he would hold a summit in Ames, Iowa, to firm up his farm proposals.
The Kerry campaign put the crowd to work, handing out phone numbers of voters to call on the spot. "I want you to reach out and convert someone on the other side," Kerry said.
Polls suggest Mr. Bush and Kerry are running even not only in Iowa and Michigan, but in an improbable variety of other battleground states and nationally as well. Mr. Bush, too, pressed hard for crossover votes.
"If you're a Democrat, and your dreams and goals are not found in the far left wing of the Democrat party, I'd be honored to have your vote," he said.
In Iraq, U.S. military maneuvers including stepped-up air strikes raised the prospect of a decisive showdown with insurgents in Fallujah and neighboring Ramadi. The goal would be to restore government control for the Iraqi national elections by the end of January.
Vice President Dick Cheney said Wednesday night in Wisconsin that the terrorists and insurgents "know once those elections are held, they're out of business. They've said as much" in "communications that we've captured between Zarqawi and the bin Laden crowd." Cheney was referring to terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Capping a political campaign already fixated on Iraq, any attack before Tuesday would send unpredictable reverberations through the U.S. electoral scene. Officials have not confirmed a major assault is close.
Kerry assailed Mr. Bush for a third day over the disappearance of nearly 400 tons of explosives in Iraq during the fall of Saddam Hussein's government, blaming him for not seeing to it that ammunition depots overtaken by U.S. forces were secured.
"The missing explosives could very likely be in the hands of terrorists and insurgents, who are actually attacking our forces now 80 times a day on average," the Democrat said in Iowa.
"The senator is making wild charges," Mr. Bush said in response. "The munitions may have been moved before our troops arrived."
Mr. Bush's team put extra money into TV commercials in Portland, Maine, aimed at voters in neighboring New Hampshire, where the president is going Friday and polls find Kerry leading narrowly. The race in Hawaii, ordinarily a safe bet for a Democrat, was unexpectedly close.
Both sides are working feverishly to get out the vote. Many Americans, however, have already gotten out and voted.
An Associated Press-Ipsos survey found 11 percent of voters had already marked ballots in 32 states that permit early voting, and another 11 percent said they intended to do so before Tuesday.
An ABC News poll has Kerry up 49-48 percent nationally. Reuters/Zogby gave the president a 48-47 lead over Kerry, but had the Massachusetts senator gaining three points to lead in battleground Ohio 46-45 percent.