KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A confident-sounding Sen. John Kerry accused Republican leaders yesterday of being "scared" of his surging campaign for the Democratic nomination as he stumped through the Midwest, hoping to spark victories in the seven states holding primaries or caucuses Tuesday.
Rallying supporters at a downtown Kansas City hotel, Kerry seemed emboldened by recent attacks lobbed at him by high-ranking GOP officials who said that he has embraced positions as a senator that would weaken national security.
"It is the greatest form of flattery what they're doing - they're scared," Kerry told a boisterous, sign-waving audience crammed into a ballroom.
"They can hear you all the way in Karl Rove's office," Kerry told the crowd, referring to Bush's political maestro at the White House.
Polls show Kerry, who catapulted to front-runner status after victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, running ahead in most of this week's contests, though he seems to be locked in a close race with retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark in Oklahoma and with North Carolina Sen. John Edwards in South Carolina. Edwards has said South Carolina, where he was born, is a must-win for him if he is to stay in the race.
In Missouri, Kerry has opened up a wide lead over his rivals, polls show.
Aides to Kerry, mindful of the tough fight the Massachusetts senator is engaged in in South Carolina, were eager to highlight how Missouri, where Kerry appears to be in command, is considered a true bellwether of the leanings of the country. Since 1904, the state has voted for the winner in every presidential election but one.
"It is a good litmus test for how you will do in the fall," Kerry spokeswoman Kim Molstre said of Missouri. "And we feel very good about where we are."
Kerry has pledged that by Tuesday he will have visited each of the seven states holding contests. The senator is also looking ahead, poised to pick up the endorsement of Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, whose state holds its primary Saturday.
Rallying several hundred supporters yesterday, Kerry said with a smile that Ed Gillespie, the Republican National Committee chairman, had criticized his foreign policy record last week. Gillespie said in a speech that Kerry's "long record in the Senate is one of advocating policies that would weaken our national security."
Bush's campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, also denounced Kerry's foreign policy record last week. The president has thus far refrained from publicly attacking Kerry or any of the Democratic candidates. But, according to news accounts, Bush took a swipe at Kerry during the annual Alfalfa Club dinner in Washington last weekend by suggesting that the Democrat had flip-flopped on the war in Iraq.
"I think Kerry's position on the war is politically brilliant," Bush said, according to a leaked account of his remarks at the private dinner. "In New Hampshire yesterday, he stated he had voted for the war, adding that he was strongly opposed to it."
Kerry has explained that he voted to give the president authority to pursue diplomacy and go to war as a final option but that he believes Bush rushed the country into the war without building a broad international coalition and has mismanaged the security in postwar Iraq.
Kerry, like all of his campaign rivals, has included blistering attacks on Bush in his stump speeches - criticism that draws ear-rattling applause from Democrats. But in the response to the salvos lobbed at him from Republican leaders last week, Kerry seemed eager yesterday to rip into the president and highlight the fact that he himself served in combat during a war while Bush did not.
Kerry built most of his remarks around Bush's speech on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in May, when the president declared major military operations in Iraq over with a sign proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" as a backdrop.
"George Bush has the ability to beat his chest and say, 'Mission accomplished,'" Kerry said. "But when it comes to jobs, when it comes to health care, when it comes to prescription drugs, when it comes to protecting the environment, it's not only not mission accomplished. It is mission abandoned."
Missouri unexpectedly became a Democratic battleground after its favorite son, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who was expected to win easily, dropped out of the race after his poor showing in the Iowa caucuses. In a matter of days, Kerry has been able to pick up key endorsements in the state - including those from former Sen. Jean Carnahan and the mayors of St. Louis and Kansas City -- and appears to have won over many undecided voters.
Brian Staihr, 44, an economist from Kansas City, said he had been supporting Howard Dean, until the former Vermont governor's much-ridiculed concession speech in Iowa. "I guess I'm one of those 'I dated Dean but married Kerry,'" Staihr said.
"But I'm really an anybody-but-Bush supporter," he added.
Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, will be in Missouri today holding a fund-raiser and an event with singer-songwriter Carole King.
The Massachusetts senator left yesterday for Oklahoma, North Dakota, Arizona and New Mexico, where he plans to watch the Super Bowl today. He told his Kansas City audience that they should pull for his home-state team, the New England Patriots. And he included a message for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who accepted an invitation from Bush to come to Washington recently.
"The first thing I'll do when I'm president," Kerry said, "is pardon Brady for going to that State of the Union address."