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Predebate debate tackles Iraq

Setting the themes for their first debate, President Bush contended Monday that John Kerry "cannot expect to lead the world" by taking multiple positions on issues while the Democrat charged the incumbent "refuses to come clean with the American people" on the situation in Iraq.

Both campaigns took a break from their preparations for the first presidential debate, scheduled Thursday in Coral Gables, and made appearances designed to keep them in the public eye. Bush took a quick bus trip through Ohio before returning to his Texas ranch. Kerry met with voters in Spring Green, Wis., where he has set up debate camp at a local resort. Ohio and Wisconsin are key battleground states.

With the debate only days away, both campaigns sought to reinforce negative images of their opponents.

For Bush, the strategy was to keep portraying Kerry as vacillating on the war in Iraq as well as funding for troops and rebuilding Afghanistan and Iraq. The Democratic challenger proceeded with an aggressive effort to portray Bush as out of touch on the realities of Iraq and portraying too positive a picture of a country in which insurgent violence is on the rise.

At a town hall meeting before a modest crowd at the River Valley Middle School, Kerry said he had met a man who asked him if it was wise to change horses in midstream.

"I said to him, "When your horse is headed down to the waterfalls, or when your horse is drowning, it's a good time to change horses in midstream, folks,' " Kerry said to laughter and applause.

Kerry said Bush has not been truthful about the situation in Iraq, as well as the economy and other issues.

"He keeps telling us, "Oh, we're making progress. Oh, things are going fine. Oh, everything is okay,' " Kerry said, mocking the president for landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln in May of last year as the aircraft carrier carried a "Mission Accomplished" banner.

"It's not accomplished today and he's still trying to hide from the American people what needs to be done in order to be successful in Iraq," Kerry said.

Bush, appearing before large crowds in Springfield and West Chester, Ohio, said it had been tough to prepare to debate Kerry "because he keeps changing positions on the war on terror." Listing a series of what he contended were inconsistencies in Kerry's votes and statements, Bush said Kerry "probably could spend 90 minutes debating himself."

"You cannot lead if you don't know where you stand," Bush told a rally of an estimated 41,000 people in West Chester. "I'm going to continue to speak as clearly as I can and tell the people what I believe. And I'm not going to change positions when times get tough."

"You've got to be able to speak clearly in order to make this world a more peaceful place," Bush said. "You cannot expect to lead this world if you try to take both sides of every position."

Kerry said that he has consistently said Saddam Hussein needed to be held accountable, but said Bush rushed to war in Iraq without seeking broad-based support.