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Inside Politics

Kerry says Bush 'unfit to lead this nation'

Slams Cheney for avoiding Vietnam service

Kerry and running mate John Edwards, background, greet supporters Thursday in Springfield, Ohio.
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Sen. John Kerry responds to the Republican National Convention. (Part 1)
Kerry responds to the RNC. (Part 2)

CNN's Bill Hemmer talks with John Edwards about the RNC's tone.
John F. Kerry
America Votes 2004

SPRINGFIELD, Ohio (CNN) -- Striking back less than an hour after the completion of the Republican National Convention, where he was the subject of countless GOP barbs, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry re-entered the fray, calling President Bush "unfit to lead this nation."

"I have five words for America: This is your wake-up call," the Massachusetts senator told a cheering crowd at a midnight rally in Springfield, Ohio.

"We all saw the anger and distortion of the Republican convention," Kerry said. "For the past week, they attacked my patriotism and my fitness to serve as commander-in-chief.

"Well, here's my answer: I'm not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who have misled the nation into Iraq."

Kerry was a decorated Navy officer in Vietnam who became a prominent antiwar activist upon returning home, and that history has played a major role in his presidential campaign.

The speech followed Wednesday night's attacks on Kerry by Vice President Dick Cheney and by renegade Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, who savaged Kerry as unfit to serve as commander-in-chief.

The Georgia senator blasted the party he still nominally belongs to as one "motivated more by partisan politics than by national security," while Cheney said Kerry "does not seem to understand the first obligation of a commander in chief, and that is to support American troops in combat."

Kerry counterpunched in his Ohio speech by saying, "Misleading our nation into war in Iraq makes you unfit to lead this nation.

"Doing nothing while this nation loses millions of jobs makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting 45 million Americans go without health care makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting the Saudi royal family control our energy costs makes you unfit to lead this nation. Handing out billions of government contracts to Halliburton while you're still on their payroll makes you unfit. That's the record of George Bush and Dick Cheney, and it's not going to change."

"The vice president even called me unfit for office last night," Kerry said. "I guess I'll leave it up to the voters whether five deferments makes someone more qualified to defend this nation than two tours of duty."

Cheney was the recipient of the Vietnam-era draft deferments.

Kerry said the next 60 days leading up to the November 2 election are key and give Americans a simple choice -- "If you believe this country is heading in the right direction, you should support George Bush, but if you believe America needs to move in a new direction, join with us."

"For four days in New York ... we heard almost nothing but anger and insults from the Republicans, and I'll tell you why," he said. "It's because they can't talk about the real issues facing Americans. They can't talk about their record because it's a record of failure."

In the president's acceptance speech, he focused on his leadership following the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States, but also outlined about 15 domestic initiatives on education, health care, jobs and taxes, including proposing economic "opportunity zones" for poorer areas that would offer tax relief to lure new businesses.

Kerry's response: "All hat, no cattle" -- an expression common in Texas used to refer to phony cowboys who dress and talk the part but are pretending to be what they aren't.

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