ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — President Bush and Sen. John Kerry vied for the senior vote Tuesday, swapping charges over Social Security and a looming shortage of flu vaccine two weeks before Election Day.
The two rivals for the White House focused on domestic issues as Vice President Dick Cheney raised the terrifying specter of terrorists attacking U.S. cities with nuclear weapons. "You've got to get your mind around that concept," he said, suggesting Kerry couldn't cope with the threat.
Political momentum, often cited, rarely sighted, was the buzzword inside both campaigns. Aides to Bush claimed he had it following the three presidential debates. But Kerry's team insisted that the battleground states were coming their man's way, and with them, the White House.
Whatever the truth, nationwide polls pointed toward a close finish, with two weeks of campaigning to go. Ditto recent surveys taken in Ohio and Florida, arguably the most hotly contested of the 50 states.
Kerry criticized Bush over the nation's supply of flu vaccine, and said the president had presided over a four-year "all-out assault" on Social Security. The four-term Massachusetts senator said the vaccine shortage was a result of a "failure of leadership" by the man in the White House.
"If you can't get flu vaccines to Americans how are you going to protect them against bioterrorism?" Kerry said in an NPR News interview. "If you can't get flu vaccines to Americans, what kind of health care program (are) you running?
Campaigning in Florida during the day, Bush said the problem was nothing of the sort. He blamed a "major manufacturing defect" for the shortage, and sought to reassure his audience at the same time senior administration health officials worked to allay public concerns.
British regulators recently shut down shipments from Chiron Corp., cutting the U.S. supply of flu shots almost in half.
"Our government is doing everything possible to help older Americans and children get their shots," Bush said, a few hours before administration officials said 2.6 million extra doses would be available to partially offset the loss of 48 million in all.
As for Social Security, Kerry said Bush's economic policies have put it "on a dangerous road. Now he's asking for another four years to privatize the program, and undo the sacred compact we've made with our seniors," the Democrat said in an appearance in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
"I will not privatize Social Security. I will not cut benefits. I will not raise the retirement age," he said. "Because when you've worked hard for a lifetime, America owes you what you've earned."
It was an expansion of charges Kerry first made on Sunday. This time, Bush rebutted them even before the senator spoke.
Urging his audiences to "reject the politics of fear" at the ballot box, the president sought to turn the issue to his own advantage. Seniors will continue to get their checks, he said, "no matter what they (Democrats) try to tell you." And the program is "in pretty good shape" for the baby boomers, he added.
"To make sure Social Security is around when our children grow up, we must allow younger workers to save some of their own payroll taxes in a personal savings account that earns better interest, a personal savings account they call their own and an account the government cannot take away," Bush said.
At the same time, the clash between Bush and Kerry underscored a delicate political straddle on Social Security, a program that provides retirement and disability benefits for 47 million Americans.
Americans age 65 and older cast an estimated 22 million ballots in 2000, and exit polls indicate they split them, Vice President Al Gore won 50 percent to 47 percent for Bush.
Polls show that current recipients are largely opposed to the type of major changes that Bush has advocated. Yet younger workers are favorably inclined toward a system that would allow them the choice of putting a portion of their payroll taxes into a personal retirement account.
Cheney was in Carroll, Ohio, when he raised the specter of terrorists with biological, chemical or even nuclear weapons attacking U.S. cities.
Kerry is trying to persuade voters he would be the same type of "tough, aggressive" leader as Bush in the fight against terrorism, the vice president said. "I don't believe it."
Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, was in New Hampshire, where he accused the Republicans of trying to scare the voters into re-electing the president. "While they campaign on fear, we're going to talk about the facts," he said.
While most of the attention fell to the president, his rival and their running mates, a GOP-aligned group, Progress For America Voter Fund, announced plans to spend $14 million over the campaign's final two weeks on a feel-good ad about Bush's wartime leadership.
In it, Ohio teenager Ashley Faulkner recalls Bush comforting her after her mother died in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"He's the most powerful man in the world and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe, that I'm OK," she says.
Kerry also looked for outside help. He told an interviewer he hopes former President Clinton has recovered sufficiently from heart surgery to campaign for the Democratic ticket in the campaign's closing days, possibly in Pennsylvania.
Contributing: Nedra Pickler.