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Kerry Hits Bush On Assault Weapons

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said Friday that President Bush failed to protect Americans from criminals and terrorists by letting a ban on assault weapons expire next week.

"In the al Qaeda manual on terror, they were telling people to go out and buy assault weapons, to come to America and buy assault weapons," Kerry said. "Every law enforcement officer in America doesn't want us selling assault weapons in the streets of America, but George Bush, he says, 'Well, I'm for that.'"

As he frequently tells voters on the campaign trail, Kerry said he's a hunter and fisherman who respects the right of Americans to own guns. He has pledged to protect 2nd Amendment rights and said the ban can be reinstated without trampling those rights.

"I mean, heavens to Betsy folks, we've had that law on the books for the last 10 years, and there's not a gun owner in America who can stand up and say they tried to take my guns away."

The four-term Massachusetts senator accused Mr. Bush of caving to the National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobby.

The Bush-Cheney campaign said Kerry shouldn't be trusted to protect gun-owners rights because of a 20-year Senate voting record in which he's backed gun-control legislation.

President Bush, on a daylong bus trip through West Virginia and Ohio, continued to criticize Kerry's stance on the Iraq war, saying, "When it comes to Iraq, my opponent has more different positions than all his colleagues in the Senate combined."

As the "newest wrinkle," he cited Kerry's charge that the Iraq war is squandering $200 billion, in addition to the lives lost.

At a Huntington, W. Va., rally, Mr. Bush noted the Democrat told an interviewer a year ago that funding for military operations in Iraq should be increased.

To cheers at a hockey arena, Mr. Bush said, "One thing about Sen. Kerry's position is clear: If he had his way, Saddam Hussein would still be in power and still be a threat to the world."

Mr. Bush was accompanied by Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who assailed Kerry in a fiery keynote address at last week's Republican convention, a speech critics described as pure vitriol.

"I want to take this opportunity to tell all my fellow Democrats wherever they may be, all the few who like me never thought about voting for a Republican a few years ago. ... George W. Bush is a Republican we can proudly support," said Miller on Friday.

The president, obviously delighted at Miller's full-throated endorsement, said the senator is "what I would call a discerning Democrat."

Kerry focused on the weapons ban during his second day talking to Midwestern voters about health care, a sign the Democratic candidate thinks he can use rising medical and prescription drug costs to sway undecided voters as much as focusing on joblessness and the economy.

"I would put it in the top three issues, definitely," said campaign policy director Sarah Bianchi.

Kerry headed to competitive territory in the suburbs of St. Louis on Friday to argue that Mr. Bush slighted seniors while crafting a Medicare prescription drug plan that left a big hole in the coverage and forbid the government from negotiating cheaper prices.

"The problem of what's happening with health care represents a real problem with this administration and with George Bush's priorities because his priority has been: No. 1, the insurance companies, the HMOs; No. 2, the drug companies ... and No. 3, you," Kerry said. "I'm putting you first."

A day earlier, he told voters in evenly divided Iowa that Mr. Bush ignored four years of double-digit increases in employer-sponsored health care premiums.

"President Bush for four years has had an opportunity to try to deal with this, and he has no plan at all," the Massachusetts senator said. "In fact, he's been busy losing people's coverage."

Drew Altman, president of the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation, said health care could be decisive in states like Iowa and Florida with older populations and very close races.

"It's all about costs and the prescription drug law," he said. "That's what you hammer on."

Democrats have traditionally held an edge over Republicans on health care issues.

Mr. Bush had eroded some of the Democrats' advantage before he enacted a massive Medicare prescription drug benefit that caused confusion and worry among seniors. The administration has spent millions explaining and promoting the new program.

Despite voters' questions about the administration's signature health care achievement, they give Mr. Bush more credit than Republicans generally on health care issues, Altman said.

While seniors focus on Medicare benefits, younger voters worry about myriad health care cost increases, including rising copays, deductibles, drug costs and premiums.

Some, especially those small businesses or in industries suffering job losses and layoffs, worry that they could quickly end up uninsured.