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Kerry, Bush Wage War Over Terror

A day after a mostly cordial debate with his Democratic rivals, John Kerry took the gloves off Friday to issue a fresh challenge to President Bush on what could be the key issue of the general election campaign: national security.

"I am convinced that we can prove to the American people that we know how to make them safer and more secure with a stronger, more comprehensive and more effective strategy for winning the war on terror than the Bush administration has ever envisioned," Kerry said as he outlined his plan to combat terrorism in a speech at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Kerry said Mr. Bush has "no comprehensive strategy for victory in the war on terror."

"We cannot win the war on terror through military power alone," said the four-term Massachusetts lawmaker, a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Kerry also accused the president and "his armchair hawks" of weakening the U.S. military by failing to provide proper equipment. He lambasted Mr. Bush for "stonewalling" the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks.

The Bush campaign has criticized Kerry in recent days of voting against some increases in defense spending and military weapons programs during his 19-year congressional career. Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot said Kerry's policies would weaken the country's ability to win the war on terror.

"If John Kerry's wrong ideas had been implemented during the last 30 years, the world today would be more dangerous and the United States would be less secure," Racicot said.

Kerry said he would protect chemical and nuclear facilities, increase security at ports and airports, restore federal funding for 100,000 police officers and add 100,000 firefighters across the country

Kerry referred to reports that Pakistani forces may be moving in to capture al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, in remote areas along the Afghanistan border, but criticized Bush for failing to capture him earlier.

"We've heard this news before," Kerry said. "We had him in our grasp more than two years ago at Tora Bora, but George Bush held U.S. forces back and instead called on Afghan warlords with no loyalty to our cause to finish the job. We all hope the outcome will be different this time."

Kerry's speech came a day after a Democratic debate in Los Angeles that was marked more by agreement than argument. The polite tone suggested what the calendar and delegate count indicate: that the Democratic race is winding down.

"There are more groans in a professional wrestling match than there were tonight, we have a rallying Democratic Party," Bob Mulholland, the California Democratic Party's chief strategist, told Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn. "I thought Kerry and Edwards acted like teammates getting ready for the big fall game."

Kerry and Edwards sparred lightly over trade, the death penalty and who has the best chance of defeating Mr. Bush in November. But days before Super Tuesday's crucial 10-state showdown, the two found common ground in opposing gay marriages along with Mr. Bush's proposal to make them unconstitutional.

Edwards hoped Thursday night's debate would help emphasize differences in an attempt to galvanize support and narrow the large gap with the front-running Kerry.

"I know he's looking for some differences because you need them," Kerry chided Edwards at one point.

Both took nearly identical positions on the gay-marriage issue — voicing personal opposition but saying it should be left to the states to decide rather than be banned by a constitutional amendment, as Mr. Bush called for this week.

"He's doing this because he's in (political) trouble. ... He's playing politics with the Constitution of the United States," said Kerry. "This is clearly nothing but politics," said Edwards.

Long-shot Al Sharpton, who along with Dennis Kucinich shared the debate stage, accused Mr. Bush of "gay baiting. ... The issue is not who you go to bed with. The issue is whether either of you have a job when you get up in the morning."

Both Kerry and Edwards were campaigning Friday in some of the 10 states with Democratic contests on what is known as Super Tuesday. After his speech, Kerry was heading to Oakland, Calif. Edwards was traveling to St. Paul, Minn., to meet voters.

Together, next week's primaries and caucuses, stretching from New England to California, offer 1,151 delegates — more than half of the 2,162 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.

Kerry went into the debate with 748 delegates in a CBS News tally, compared to 240 for Edwards, and set his sights on securing the nomination Tuesday. Edwards hopes for a comeback to keep his campaign alive.

Asked if Kerry could connect with Americans, Edwards said: "I think it depends on what is happening in the country at the moment. I know I can."

To a question about whether the death penalty was justified for a child killer, Kerry said his instinct "is to want to strangle that person with my own hands." But the former prosecutor said he favors the death penalty only for terrorism cases.

Edwards said some crimes "deserve the ultimate punishment" and cited as an example the killers of James Byrd, a black man who was dragged to death from a pickup truck in 1998 in Texas.