Candidates Hunt For 'Big Mo'

Less than two weeks before Election Day, political momentum is the buzzword inside both presidential campaigns as polls stay tight and rhetoric grows more and more heated.

The two rivals for the White House traded charges on domestic issues such as Social Security and the shortage of flu vaccines Tuesday 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.

National surveys show President Bush and Sen. John Kerry in a statistical dead heat. But conventional wisdom dictates that polls are better at showing trends in support for a candidate — whether he is moving up or down — than their ultimate share of the vote.

Both campaigns claim that their man is moving up, that he has "big mo," and the first President Bush once nicknamed "momentum."

Aides to Mr. Bush claimed he had it following the three presidential debates. But Kerry's team insisted that the battleground states were coming their man's way, and with them, the White House.

Newly released polls in two of the most hotly contested battleground states that could decide the election showed Kerry with a slight edge, but within the margin of error.

Kerry led Mr. Bush 45 percent to 44 percent in Florida. The poll of 641 likely voters was conducted from Oct. 10-15 and had a margin of error of four percentage points.

An ABC News poll in Ohio had Kerry leading Mr. Bush by 50 percent to 47 percent. The poll of 789 likely voters conducted Oct. 14-17 had a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.

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 National Public Radio 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 administration officials said 2.6 million extra doses would be available to partially offset the loss of 48 million in all.

As for Social Security, Kerry said Mr. Bush'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, Pennsylvania.

The policies Kerry referred to were those that increased the federal deficit, which ate up the surplus that could have gone to shore up the Social Security trust fund.

"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.

Americans age 65 and older cast an estimated 22 million ballots in 2000, and exit polls indicate they split them, Vice President Al Gore won 50 percent to 47 percent for Mr. Bush.

Polls show that current recipients are largely opposed to the type of major changes that Mr. Bush has advocated. Yet younger workers are favorably inclined toward a system that would allow them the choice of putting a portion of their payroll taxes into a personal retirement account.

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.

Kerry also looked for outside help. He told an interviewer that he hopes former President Clinton has recovered sufficiently from heart surgery six weeks ago to campaign for the Democratic ticket in the campaign's closing days, possibly in Pennsylvania.

Mr. Bush is getting help of his own from his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who is making a series of speeches in swing state in an apparent departure from the usual non-political image of the president's chief security aide, The New York Times reports.