Bush campaign manager criticizes Kerry's votes
Senator is weak on security issues, Mehlman tells RNC meeting
President Bush's re-election campaign raised nearly $133 million in 2003, more than twice as much as any Democrat raised.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With Sen. John Kerry surging to the front of the Democratic pack, the head of President Bush's re-election effort took aim at him Friday, charging that the Massachusetts senator's voting record shows a weakness on national security issues.
"We value Senator Kerry's honorable and heroic service in Vietnam. But we question his judgment in consistently voting to cut defense and intelligence funding critical to national security," said Ken Mehlman, Bush's campaign manager, speaking at the Republican National Committee's winter meeting.
Mehlman charged that Kerry tried to cut $8 billion from intelligence budgets during the 1990s, and that his proposals "were so reckless" that he couldn't find any co-sponsors in the Senate.
Mehlman also said that when Kerry first entered the Senate in the mid-1980s, "he sought to cancel the very weapons systems that are winning the war on terror and maintaining our military strength. He opposed Ronald Reagan's efforts to fight communism in our hemisphere and opposed the first Gulf War."
The head of the Bush campaign also brought up a comment Kerry made last April, days before U.S. and coalition forces entered Baghdad, that regime change was needed not only in Iraq but also in Washington.
"While our troops were at risk in Iraq, John Kerry compared the commander in chief to Saddam Hussein, calling for regime change in the United States," Mehlman said.
Mehlman's comments Friday echoed similar criticism leveled at Kerry on Thursday by RNC Chairman Ed Gillespie, as the president's campaign team rachets up its rhetoric toward the winner of the first two Democratic nominating contests.
In a conference call with reporters, Kerry, who was decorated for his Navy service in Vietnam, said Republicans are "scared stiff" of his candidacy.
"That is why they are sending their attack dogs out," he said. "I am going fight back."
Mehlman's criticism Friday extended to the entire Democratic field, saying the candidates were "united in their plans to take America backward to failed policies and false illusions.
"Without a positive agenda or vision for tomorrow, each of the Democrats has waged a negative campaign of vicious and unprecedented personal attacks on the president," Mehlman said.
"They're not running for president to safeguard America's homeland and bring peace throughout the world. They're not running to grow jobs and improve the economy. They're not running to reform education or to provide health care for America's seniors. They're not running to take America forward. The singular rationale for each of their candidacies is to beat our president."
He also lumped Kerry in with another Democratic contender, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, charging that though they "may not raise their voices as loudly" as Howard Dean did in Iowa, "their rhetoric is every bit as hostile."
"Senator Edwards called the president a 'phony,' and just last night said the president couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time," Mehlman said. "Both Edwards and Kerry regularly divide our country, with yesterday's class warfare rhetoric of two Americas. And these are the Democrats who claim to be running positive campaigns."
Figures from the Federal Election Commission show that the Bush campaign, despite having no primary opposition, raised nearly $133 million in 2003, with $99.1 million still on hand at the end of the year. That amount of available cash was more than twice as much as any Democrat has raised, and Bush has continued to raise money in 2004.
Despite Bush's advantages of money and incumbency, Mehlman warned the party faithful that as the campaign season progresses, "We must expect an election where we will be behind at certain points, particularly after the Democrats settle on their nominee and hold their convention."
However, he said, Republicans are in a stronger position now than they were in 2000.
"The red states have turned redder, while the blue states have turned purple," Mehlman said, using a short-hand reference to states Bush carried as red and states Al Gore carried as blue.
CNN's Kelly Wallace and Justin Dial contributed to this report.