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The Presidential Campaign

Edwards bores down on Bush

The Democratic nominee homes in on tons of missing Iraqi explosives and blasts the president as "incompetent."

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published October 28, 2004

[Times photo: Carrie Pratt]
Sen. John Edwards greets people at the North Greenwood Recreation complex on Wednesday. The crowd waited hours to see the vice presidential candidate.

CLEARWATER - Sen. John Edwards called President Bush's administration "incompetent" Wednesday, and blasted the president over the disappearance of stockpiles of powerful explosives from an Iraqi weapons depot, despite some speculation that the weapons may have been removed as U.S. troops approached Baghdad 18 months ago.

At the first of three rallies in Florida on Wednesday and with six days until the election, Edwards said the reported gaffe, first publicized Monday, continues to underscore the administration's failed policies in Iraq.

"Why did they not secure those 380 tons of explosives, the very kind of explosives that the terrorists want to get their hands on?" Edwards asked a gymnasium filled with hundreds of supporters at the North Greenwood Recreation and Aquatic Complex. "Why didn't they secure it? What are they doing about it now?

"What are they doing to make sure that those explosives don't get into the hands of terrorists? What are they doing to make sure those explosives are not used against us?"

Bush, who broke silence on the issue Wednesday, said the military is investigating. Stumping in rural Pennsylvania with Georgia Democrat Sen. Zell Miller, Bush said John Kerry's campaign is grasping for traction days before the election.

"This investigation is important and it's ongoing, and a political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief," Bush told Republicans in Lancaster, Pa. "The senator is making wild charges about missing explosives when his top foreign policy adviser admits, quote, "We do not know the facts.' "

An Iraqi official earlier this month said about 380 tons of high-explosive ammunitions were missing from a weapons site south of the Iraqi capital. But it's unclear whether U.S. forces reached the site before the weapons vanished.

Edwards said it was a sign the Bush administration is incompetent.

"Do you want four more years of this?" he asked the crowd, who had waited hours to see the vice presidential candidate.

During his 30-minute talk, parts of which mirrored speeches he gave in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, Edwards also criticized the president for pretending to work with Democrats.

He likened Miller to a showpiece and called the stunt an act of desperation.

"He goes to talk to Democrats for the first time, six days before the election," Edwards said.

He blasted Bush for comparing himself to three popular U.S. presidents: John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"Those are Democratic presidents who led with a combination of strength and hope. George Bush's combination is fear and failure," said Edwards, drawing perhaps the loudest applause of the rally.

And he stressed that the president has presided over a historic number of job losses.

"What will be good for our economy is to outsource George W. Bush and Dick Cheney," Edwards said.

Kerry backers waited for more than three hours for a chance to catch a glimpse of the vice presidential candidate, and lines snaked around the gym.

Forest Saylor, 67, of Clearwater said the president has failed to keep prescription drug prices reasonable. Saylor takes medication for high blood pressure and for his feet, which tend to swell.

"We need change for the next four years," Saylor said. "John Kerry is the man."

Cid Bolduc, a painter who splits her time between Massachusetts and Florida, said she came south early to see Edwards and cast her ballot in Florida.

"It's a question of where my vote will do the most good," Bolduc said. "I made a point of coming now to be here to vote."

Mary Allen, who lives in the predominantly African-American neighborhood of North Greenwood, told Edwards onWednesday she has a picture for him to autograph when he becomes vice president.

Allen, from the front row, said Edwards was genuine.

"He's fantastic," said Allen, 65. "He has the God-given ability, that gift. He's special."

After the rally, Edwards shook hands as supporters boarded school buses to head to early voting sites. He also taped an interview with NBC's Campbell Brown before leaving Clearwater shortly after 1 p.m., when he headed to shore up support in two east coast Florida communities.

"Every indication, it's a close race," said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson. "Get prepared for shenanigans."

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified October 28, 2004, 00:43:25]

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