SPRING GREEN, Wis. - President Bush and rival John Kerry paused from private debate practice on Monday to accuse each other of lack of clarity on Iraq as they campaigned in "must win" states for each - the Republican incumbent in Ohio and his Democratic challenger in Wisconsin.
Bush portrayed Kerry as indecisive on the war and Kerry accused the president of "still trying to hide" from voters the extent of what remains to be done in Iraq as both sides maneuvered for advantage ahead of Thursday's leadoff debate.
Meanwhile, the two campaigns sparred with dueling television ads on Iraq emphasizing the same themes.
In their Monday appearances, the two candidates auditioned themes certain to come up at the 90-minute showdown in Coral Gables, Fla., whose topic is foreign policy and national security.
Speaking at a town hall style meeting here not far from the hideaway resort where he is preparing for the debate, Kerry ridiculed Bush for saying in a television interview that he has no regrets over his "Mission Accomplished" speech aboard an aircraft carrier - and would do it again.
"Since he said that, over 900 have given their lives for the country. The mission was not accomplished when he said it," Kerry said.
" He didn't know it and didn't understand it. 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 added. Bush didn't actually say "mission accomplished," but spoke beneath a huge banner on the carrier bearing those words.
Bush was asked in an interview with Fox News whether he would still give that May 1, 2003 speech, knowing what he knows now. "Absolutely," he replied. A transcript of the interview, to be aired Monday-Wednesday, was made available by Fox over the weekend.
Bush sounded a favorite theme at a rally at the Midwest Lifestock and Expo Center in Springfield, Ohio: that Kerry has vacillated repeatedly on Iraq. "You cannot expect to lead this world if you try to take both sides of every position," Bush said.
Referring to the faceoff scheduled for Thursday night, Bush said, "He probably could spend 90 minutes debating himself. It's been a little difficult to prepare because he keeps changing positions on the war on terror."
Meanwhile, the Bush campaign rolled out a new ad asking: "How can John Kerry protect us when he doesn't even know where he stands?" It shows quick, out-of-context clips of the Democrat commenting on the war.
Kerry's campaign hit back with a spot that claims "Bush has no plan what to do in Iraq" and inquires: "How can you solve a problem when you can't see it?"
Both sides are using commercials to try to sow and reinforce questions in the public mind about the credibility and fitness of the other candidate to serve as commander in chief.
Bush also planned to campaign in a Cincinnati suburb before returning to Texas.
The president holds a slight lead in polls in Ohio, which he won in 2000. With its 20 electoral votes, Ohio is viewed a "must win" state for Bush by GOP strategists. No Republican has ever been elected president without carrying Ohio.
Similarly, Wisconsin is of vital importance to Kerry. Democrat Al Gore won the state in 2000, but state polls now show a tie or a slight Bush lead. Democrats agree it would be difficult for Kerry to win without Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes.
In other political developments:
- Some 51 percent of those surveyed in a new Time magazine poll said U.S. actions in Iraq have made the world more dangerous, echoing a major Kerry campaign theme, while some 39 percent said the world is safer. That's a shift from two weeks ago when 46 percent said more dangerous and 44 percent said safer. Overall, the poll showed Bush leading Kerry 48 percent to 42 percent.
-Kerry's Democratic Senate colleague, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, said Bush increased the danger of a "nuclear 9/11" by shifting attention from Osama bin Laden to Iraq.
-The Republican National Committee, pressing its contention that Kerry has flip-flopped on Iraq and other issues, set up a Web site (http://www.flippercam.com ) that purportedly lists Kerry's changes of position. It features a dolphin swimming across the top of the screen with bubbles rising and theme music from the 1960s television series "Flipper" playing in the background.
-Sen. John Edwards, Kerry's running mate, refused to cross a local firefighters' picket line and attend a party fund-raiser in Providence, R.I.., a member of the Kerry-Edwards campaign team said.
- Former President Jimmy Carter contended that despite changes designed to eliminate voting problems in Florida - where the disputed 2000 presidential election was decided by only a few hundred votes - conditions for a fair election in that state still don't exist. "The disturbing fact is that a repetition of the problems of 2000 now seems likely," Carter wrote in an opinion piece published Monday in the Washington Post.
Campaigning in the heart of dairy country, Kerry claimed Bush wants to end a federal price support program that helps dairy farmers when milk prices drop. The program expires in October 2005. But Kerry said Bush would do nothing before the election to avoid antagonizing voters in swing dairy states.
Kerry said if he is elected, he will make sure the program is extended.
Kerry also conceded that, as a Massachusetts senator, he had voted for a federal program that propped up prices for Northeastern dairy farmers over objections of their Midwestern counterparts.
"I'm running for president of the United States now and I intend to represent all the farmers of America," he said.