"The invasion of Iraq was a profound diversion from the battle against our greatest enemy, al Qaeda," Kerry said in a speech at Temple University. "There's just no question about it. The president's misjudgment, miscalculation and mismanagement of the war in Iraq all make the war on terror harder to win."
Kerry said Iraq has become a haven for terrorists since the war, and he offered a detailed strategy to contain terrorism while drawing a sharp distinction between his and the president's views on national security.
"George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority. I would have made Osama bin Laden the priority," Kerry said. "I will finish the job in Iraq and I will refocus our energies on the real war on terror."
Kerry vowed to fight a "tougher, smarter, more effective" war on terror as he proposed policies aimed at denying individuals and groups the ability to organize and attack. He said he would build a better military and intelligence apparatus to go after enemies, deny terrorists weapons and financing, move against worldwide terrorist havens and recruitment centers, and promote freedom and democracy in Muslim nations.
The Bush-Cheney campaign said the president is already following that course. "He is copying the president's plan at the same time he is attacking the president," said spokesman Steve Schmidt.
While campaigning Friday in Lafayette, La., Vice President Dick Cheney told supporters, "John Kerry is trying to tear down and trash all the good that has been accomplished."
Meanwhile, President Bush planned a weekend break at his Texas ranch to prepare for next week's debate against Kerry in Florida.
The high-stakes character of the encounter was reflected in athat found one in four voters says their decision could hinge on what they see next Thursday. The survey also showed Mr. Bush with a 49-41 percent lead over Kerry.
Kerry has repeatedly argued that the war in Iraq has distracted attention and resources from the pursuit of terrorists, including bin Laden.
The Bush-Cheney campaign said Kerry has held conflicting positions on that point. They point to instances where Kerry said the former Iraqi leader acted like a terrorist and said that the war on terrorism should be seen as an operation bigger than the conflict in Afghanistan.
Kerry visited the Pennsylvania battleground before a quick trip home to Boston and then several days spent preparing for the presidential debates.
A day earlier, he told The Columbus Dispatch that the president's actions in Iraq and elsewhere show Mr. Bush masquerading as a mainstream conservative while pursuing extremist policies.
"I don't view these people as conservatives," Kerry said. "I actually view them as extreme, and I think their policies have been extreme, and that extends all the way to Iraq, where this president, in my judgment, diverted the real war on terror — which was Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda — and almost obsessively moved to deal with Iraq in a way that weakened our nation, overextended our armed forces, cost us $200 billion and created a breach in our oldest alliances."
Kerry also mentioned a blurring line between the separation of church and state and the growth of federal budget deficits.
Kerry told the Dispatch that he has to present himself "clearly, forcefully to the American people with a clear set of priorities."
"I think a lot of people will tune in," he said. "There are undecideds. A lot of folks will try to measure our character and our vision, so I think it's an important moment."