Grand Rapids, Michigan The candidates for U.S. president charged into a sharp final round of argument Saturday over which one can best fight global terrorism, the import of their debate underscored by Osama bin Laden's sudden reappearance on tape at "a time of great consequence," in the words of the President.
"The person that sits in the Oval Office will determine the outcome of the war on terror and the economy," George W. Bush told supporters in Grand Rapids, Mich., after directing his national security aides to take any necessary steps in response to the bin Laden tape.
Mr. Kerry was in the Midwest battleground states, too, campaigning in Appleton, Wis., where he pledged to "lead the world in fighting a smarter, more effective, tougher, more strategic war on terror."
"We will make America safer," the Massachusetts senator said, renewing his charges that Mr. Bush was responsible for letting Mr. bin Laden slip away and that the President's rush to war in Iraq had diverted needed forces from Afghanistan.
Vice-President Dick Cheney made his pitch in Pennsylvania, suggesting that Mr. bin Laden's latest message underscores the importance of staying focused on the fight against terrorism.
"It is a contest we did not choose, but it is one that we will win," he told a cheering crowd as he pressed his criticism of Mr. Kerry's stands on national security.
The campaign back-and-forth played out as the U.S. military in Iraq announced that eight Marines were killed and nine wounded in action Saturday in Anbar province in west of Baghdad.
Mr. Bush held a videoconference call with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and the heads of the CIA, FBI and departments of Justice and Homeland Security. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the president directed them to make sure any necessary action is taken with regard to the tape. He did not say what steps were being taken or contemplated.
The presidential candidates responded with reflexive gestures of unity to the sight of America's deadly foe on video, but those were swallowed up in the lunge for advantage in the campaign's closing days.
On the videotape, bin Laden explicitly acknowledged responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for the first time and told Americans: "Your security is not in the hands of Kerry or Bush or al-Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands."
After a day in Florida, Mr. Kerry flew to Wisconsin to resume campaigning in Midwestern battlegrounds, where he and Mr. Bush spent much of the week. Iowa and Ohio were also on the Massachusetts senator's plate Saturday; Mr. Bush was stumping in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota before capping the night in Orlando, Fla.
Intelligence officials continued to analyze the bin Laden tape, which they believe is genuine and had been made recently.