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Harsh words from candidates over Iraq

Character becomes an issue in the final hours of campaign

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SAGINAW, Mich. — Bitingly personal, President Bush called Sen. John Kerry too weak and wavering for wartime leadership Thursday while the Democrat held Bush responsible for missing explosives in Iraq. "The commander in chief is not getting his job done," Kerry said.

The blunder should cost Bush his presidency, the challenger argued. The Republican incumbent fired back: "John Kerry is the wrong man for the wrong job at the wrong time."

For the fourth straight day, the candidates exchanged harsh words over the disappearance of nearly 400 tons of explosives stored at Iraq's Al-Qaqaa military installation. The 11th-hour political stir, which Bush advisers say has slowed their campaign, is a reflection of how the war in Iraq and terrorism have overshadowed domestic affairs throughout the campaign.

Their eyes cast abroad, many voters even in economically strapped battleground states are judging the candidates on their ability to lead a nation at war. Thus, character is a final-hours issue.

"A president cannot blow in the wind," Bush said in a stinging reference to Kerry. In neighboring Ohio, the four-term Massachusetts senator called on his rival to "start taking responsibility for the mistakes that you've made."

Chief among them, he said, is Iraq, where insurgents slaughtered 11 Iraqi soldiers Thursday in a bloody reminder of the trouble that awaits whoever sits in the Oval Office at a minute past noon, Jan. 20, 2005.

Five days before Election Day, the polls were close and the crowds huge. Looking out at 10,000 faces at a Bush rally, failed GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole quipped, "I couldn't get a crowd like this in 1996."

Across the country, anxious voters and election officials braced for an uncertain outcome Tuesday. The Justice Department said 1,090 federal poll watchers will be sent to monitor elections in 25 states to assure compliance with voting laws.

With time running short, the campaigns reached into their near-empty arsenals of TV ads. Kerry unveiled a new commercial while the Bush campaign was forced to defend a day-old spot, acknowledging that an editor had doctored a picture of U.S. troops.

Kerry opens his latest commercial with five words that should warm hearts throughout campaign-weary battlegrounds: "Soon, the campaign will end," he said.

Pop culture merged with politics as rocker Bruce Springsteen endorsed Kerry and sang at the Massachusetts senator's rally in Madison, Wis., that drew thousands. Bush didn't have the Boss, but country singer Sammy Kershaw warmed up the crowd in affluent Westlake, Ohio.

A spate of new state polls had Bush ahead in Florida, the Democrat leading in Ohio and Michigan and the candidates essentially tied in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Oregon. Republican-leaning Arkansas is back in play, with Bush buying ads there.

And the Democratic bastion of Hawaii was up in the air, forcing Kerry to send daughter Alex to the islands.

Private polling conducted for the candidates themselves showed the race even tighter. Both campaigns believe they lead in the contested states by a percentage point or two.

Bush's polling, which showed him making gains last weekend, flattened out this week, and aides blamed the missing weapons flap for stopping their boss' momentum. That was certainly Kerry's intention when he accused Bush of "shifting explanations" for the missing explosives.

"You were warned to guard them," Kerry said in direct challenge to Bush. "You didn't guard them."

The Pentagon has said the weapons could have been moved before the U.S. invasion in March 2003. But in a potential blow to Bush's case, the U.N. nuclear agency said Thursday it warned the United States about the vulnerability of explosives stored at the installation.

Campaigning for Bush, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani wandered off message when he said troops in Iraq, not the president, bore the responsibility for searching for the explosives.

That drew a quick rebuke from Edwards. "Our men and women in uniform did their job," the senator said in Minnesota. "George Bush didn't do his job."

The back-and-forth continued when retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who oversaw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, said at a Bush rally that Kerry "denigrates, disrespects our troops."

For the second straight day, Bush accused Kerry of jumping to conclusions about the missing explosives, calling it a dangerous thing for a wartime president to do. He accused Kerry of building a "record of weakness" and trading "principle for political convenience."

Same to you, replied Kerry. The Democrat said of Bush: "He shouldn't be our commander in chief."

Contributing: Nedra Pickler