Washington U.S. President George W. Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry sprinted across the United States in a mad weekend rush to shore up support among loyal voters and sway the undecided, with both campaigns trying to capitalize on terrorism fears raised by the last-minute appearance of Osama bin Laden.
With an onslaught of opinion polls still failing to show a consistent, significant lead for either side, Mr. Bush made a four-city sweep of Florida, urging voters to "stand by" him and give him a second mandate to fight terrorism, cut taxes and protect marriage and the family.
"The future safety and prosperity of America are on the ballot," Mr. Bush told thousands at a rally in Miami. "Ultimately, this election comes down to who you can trust." He derided Mr. Kerry as a member of "the flip-flop hall of fame" for his inconsistency in voting to authorize war in Iraq and then opposing its financing, insisting that a president must not shift views to gain popularity.
Although many Americans are unsure of Mr. Bush's stewardship of the economy and the increasingly bloody war in Iraq, the President gets strong support for his leadership of the war on terrorism.
Mr. Kerry, appearing on ABC television, insisted that he would be better at chasing down the al-Qaeda chief, who made an unexpected appearance Friday in a videotaped message.
Although Mr. Kerry did not comment on the bin Laden tape directly, he said he would be better able to defend the United States, would build up international coalitions and never cede America's right to defend itself unilaterally, something that Mr. Bush has suggested Mr. Kerry would do.
"I'll look you in the eye and I'll tell every single American: I defended this country out of my own free will as a young man, and I will defend it as president of the United States of America," he said, referring to his service in Vietnam.
Bob Shrum, a leading Kerry election strategist, accused Mr. Bush of diverting military effort from the search for Mr. bin Laden by invading Iraq. "It's a terrorist haven that it wasn't before," he told Fox News.
Republican adviser Karen Hughes countered by accusing Mr. Kerry of "shameful" behaviour for claiming that the President had bungled the search for the terrorist leader.
Mr. Kerry spent time in New Hampshire and Florida, but he began the day in the crucial state of Ohio, receiving communion at a Roman Catholic church before heading to a predominantly black church in Dayton, where he appealed to the black community to support him in fighting for social justice and equality.
Mr. Bush's Miami visit was aimed at shoring up support in the crucial Cuban community. Although fervently Republican and anti-Communist, younger members and recent arrivals are less ideological and have been angered by new White House restrictions on travel to the island.
Mr. Bush vowed to keep up the pressure on Cuban President Fidel Castro, saying he believes strongly that "the people of Cuba should be free from the tyrant."
He campaigned alongside his brother Jeb, the state's popular Republican governor, and attended Mass at Jeb's home church. Monsignor Jude O'Doherty praised Mr. Bush's "whole-hearted support of life" and his support for a ban on late-term abortions a key issue for the Christian right.
Most national opinion polls still show the race too close to call. A new Reuters-Zogby survey showed Mr. Kerry tied with Mr. Bush at 48 per cent support, and The Washington Post's tracking poll also pointed to a deadlock at 48 per cent each. Confusing the picture, however, was a Newsweek survey showing Mr. Bush ahead with 50 per cent support to 44 per cent for Mr. Kerry among likely voters.But the Democrats are still banking on a huge increase in turnout tomorrow because of extensive voter-registration drives, and they are convinced these new voters will be coming out to punish Mr. Bush.
Both candidates have been spending considerable time in Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota, all of which voted narrowly for Democratic candidate Al Gore in 2000 but have recently leaned toward Mr. Bush.
Mr. Kerry will spend today in that region, with stops in Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland and La Crosse, Wis., while Mr. Bush keeps up his blistering pace in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Milwaukee and two towns in Iowa before heading to Dallas and spending the night at his ranch in Crawford, Tex.
A late addition to the group of swing states is tiny Hawaii, which is usually ignored because the national result is known long before its four electoral votes are counted. Traditionally Democratic, a recent poll showed the candidates tied among decided voters, with 12 per cent undecided.
To bolster Mr. Bush's chances, Vice-President Dick Cheney headed there yesterday for a rally while the Democrats sent Al Gore and Mr. Kerry's daughter, Alexandra, to boost Democratic hopes.
With a report from Shawn McCarthy in Manchester, N.H.