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Inside Politics

Security will decide election, candidates say

Poll shows 22-point swing in Americans' perception of safety

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President Bush defends the war in Iraq and the war on terror.

Political fallout from Senate Intelligence Committee report.

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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
Do you feel America is safer from terror because of the war in Iraq?
George W. Bush
John F. Kerry

(CNN) -- While both major candidates made their case Monday that the presidential race will boil down to a question of security, a new poll revealed a significant change in how safe Americans feel.

During a speech at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, President Bush declared half a dozen times that the American people were safer.

The Republican incumbent said the country was safer because of his decision to invade Iraq, even though he acknowledged the weapons of mass destruction that he warned Saddam Hussein possessed have not been found.

"Although we have not found stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, we were right to go into Iraq," Bush said.

"We have removed a declared enemy of America who had the capability of producing weapons of mass murder and could have passed that capability to terrorists bent on acquiring them. In the world after September 11 [2001], that was a risk we could not afford to take."

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry rejected Bush's claim that his policies have made America safer.

"It's not enough just to give speeches," Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, told reporters in Boston. "America will only be safer when we get results."

A recent poll shows the president also has not convinced more than half the country that it should feel safer.

The CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll finds 55 percent of Americans feel less safe from terror because of the war in Iraq. The fear factor is now 22 percentage points higher than it was six months ago, when the same question was asked.

The Democratic challenger also charged that Bush broke a trust with the American people with his decision to invade Iraq.

"I happen to believe that the commander in chief has to be able to look into eyes of a parent, a family -- brothers, sisters, grandparents -- and you better be able to say to them, 'I tried to do everything in my power to avoid the loss of your son and daughter, but the threat to our nation was such that we had no choice,' " Kerry said. "I believe that value, that trust, was broken in these past years."

The president said the decision to invade Iraq followed Saddam Hussein's rejection of a U.N. Security Council demand for a "full accounting" of his weapons programs.

"As he had for over a decade, Saddam Hussein refused to comply," Bush said. "So, I had a choice to make. Either take the word of a madman or defend America. Given that choice, I will defend America every time."

Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader said the United States was led into war on Iraq based on a "platform of fabrications, deceptions and lies."

"Given all the bloodshed on American forces, all the disease, the injuries, the deaths, the mental damage, not to mention the Iraqi innocents being killed, not to mention turning Iraq into a magnet for international, stateless terror -- 60 percent of people think this has increased violence in the Middle East -- if that isn't an impeachable offense, tell me about Bill Clinton," Nader said.

Bush also highlighted what he said were other successes in the time since the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, including the invasion of Afghanistan, the capture and killing of al Qaeda leaders in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the interruption of an international network that sold nuclear technology and the dismantling of Libya's nuclear weapons program.

Bush spoke near the site of the government's nuclear weapons complex in Tennessee where officials are studying nuclear material surrendered by Libya.

The president said Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi got the message because America was so tough against Saddam.

"Because the Libyan government saw the seriousness of the civilized world and correctly judged its own interests, the American people are safer."

But at least one weapons expert said the issue is not that simple.

"I don't really agree that it was Iraq that pushed Moammar Gadhafi into making the decision to give up his WMD," said Rose Gottemoeller, who focuses on nuclear issues for the Carnegie Endowment, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing cooperation between nations. "This has been a long diplomatic process that has gone on over the last 5 or 6 years."

Kerry also disagreed with Bush's assertion.

"In the two years since 9/11, less nuclear materials have been secured than in the two years prior to 9/11," Kerry said. "The facts speak for themselves. North Korea is more dangerous today than it was before this administration came into power."

Bush defended his reliance on intelligence that later proved faulty, saying the conclusions his administration drew from it were the same that others reached.

"My administration looked at intelligence on Iraq and we saw a threat," he said. "Members of the United States Congress from both political parties looked at the same intelligence, and they saw a threat. The United Nations Security Council looked at the intelligence, and it saw a threat. The previous administration and the Congress looked at the intelligence and made regime change in Iraq the policy of our country."

In a written statement given to reporters, Kerry said his top security goal as president would be "to prevent terrorists from gaining weapons of mass murder."

"I have proposed an ambitious and aggressive plan for dramatically reducing the threats from nuclear terrorism: We will greatly accelerate work to secure nuclear materials at risk and invest the time and leadership needed to address the nuclear threats in North Korea and Iran." the Kerry statement said. "I will appoint a national director of intelligence so that there is one individual with responsibility and accountability for intelligence operations."

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