NEW YORK -- Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, last night delivered a stinging attack on John Kerry, arguing that the Democratic challenger simply could not be trusted with the White House at a crossroads in US history, when the stakes for the country could not be higher.
Criticising the Massachusetts senator for weakness and vacillation, Mr. Cheney told the Republican convention here that the US had reached "a defining moment" when its leader had to make "fundamental decisions" about how to confront the long-term challenge of terrorism abroad, and how to keep Americans safe at home.
"On the question of America's role in the world, the differences between Senator Kerry and President Bush are the sharpest, and the stakes for the country are the highest," said the man who is regarded as the most powerful vice-president of modern times, and an architect of the invasion of Iraq.
Setting the stage for Mr. Bush's own acceptance speech tonight, Mr. Cheney zeroed in on Mr. Kerry for his constant changes of mind during 20 years in the Senate. By contrast, the Bush administration would "never lose sight of the greatest challenge of our time: preserving the freedom and security of this nation against determined enemies".
Hours before Mr. Cheney spoke, Mr. Kerry hit back with a broadside against Mr. Bush's handling of the war on terror, seizing on the President's recent acknowledgement he had made "miscalculations" over the post-war occupation of Iraq.
Addressing the American Legion veterans group in Nashville, Mr. Kerry argued that the botched occupation had strengthened the terrorists' hand. "Safe havens have been created, our troops have been forced to reach accommodations with the enemy, Iran has expanded its influence, and the extremists have gained momentum," he declared.
The Democrat candidate dispelled the notion that his Iraq policy was the same as that of Mr. Bush. "When it comes to Iraq, I would not have done one thing differently I would have done almost everything differently," Mr. Kerry said.
With his appearance in Nashville, Mr. Kerry broke the unwritten rule of US elections campaign that a major party candidate lies low during his rival's convention. But his foray reflects Democrat anxiety confirmed by opinion polls that the challenger has lost the initiative in the presidential race, battered by accusations from fellow Vietnam veterans that he lied over his decorated record, and failing to take the political battle to his opponents.
Yesterday, Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political adviser and merciless campaign hit-man, took his own swipe at Mr. Kerry. Mr. Rove, who secured a student deferment to avoid going to Vietnam, accused the candidate of "tarnishing the record and service" of fellow veterans. The charge will only fuel Democratic charges that the Bush re-election team is quietly co-ordinating with the independent group behind the anti-Kerry attack ads, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Mr. Cheney who secured five student deferments to avoid Vietnam was unlikely to raise the subject himself in Madison Square Garden last night, given the controversy he already attracts over his connections to the controversial oil services group Halliburton, and the perception that he is the sinister backstage architect of policies on Iraq, many of which had backfired.
Polls gave Mr. Cheney an unfavourable rating yesterday. A separate survey suggested that if, allowed to choose a vice-president separately from his boss, voters would go clearly for the Democrat John Edwards. Even so, despite intermittent rumours that Mr. Cheney would be dropped from the ticket as Mr. Bush's approval ratings fell during the summer, there was never a realistic chance of that happening. The prominence accorded Mr. Cheney here, and his appeal to conservatives, have buried such talk.
Mr. Bush was due to visit a fire station in New York last night in an attempt to squeeze a last drop from the approaching third anniversary of the 11 September attacks. He was following the example of Mr. Schwarzenegger, who on Tuesday paid an unannounced visit to another fire station before delivering the smash-hit speech of the convention so far.
The California Governor mixed humour, passion and sheer star power to promote Mr. Bush, while offering a subtle criticism of the conservatives who dominate the party. "Maybe you don't agree [with the Republicans]. But that's what's great about this country. We can respectfully disagree and still be good Republicans," he said.
This president "doesn't flinch, doesn't waver and doesn't back down", the Austrian-born actor declared, insisting that "America is safer with George W Bush". Speaking after the California Governor, Laura Bush, the first lady, similarly extolled her husband. "You can count on him, especially in a crisis," she said.
© 2004 The Independent/UK