LAS VEGAS – President Bush, continuing to paint Democratic rival John Kerry as an unprincipled, wavering senator, accused him on Thursday of trying to turn a White House decision to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain into a “political poker chip.”
“He says he’s strongly against Yucca here in Nevada. But he voted for it several times – and so did his running mate,” Bush told a largely union crowd at a carpenters training center.
“If they’re going to change one day,” Bush said, setting his sights directly on Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, “they may change again.”
Bush, following Kerry’s visit to Nevada on Tuesday, broached the controversial issue after the Massachusetts senator had vowed to kill the administration’s plan to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.
Among his concerns, Kerry cited the site as an environmental hazard and target for terrorists. And he charged that Bush had broken a 2000 campaign promise to decide the issue on its scientific merits, rather than politics.
Firing back, Bush said he had done exactly what he had said he would do and “listened to the people who know the facts and know the science and made a decision.”
“You need straight talk on this issue,” Bush said. “You need somebody who’s going to do what he says he’s going to do.”
Nonetheless, the president said he was aware of the controversy his decision had stirred and would abide by results of appeals pending in the courts and before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The Kerry campaign held its ground Thursday.
Spokesman Phil Singer reiterated that Bush had broken his 2000 campaign promise and that Kerry had been “consistent across the board” on the issue, which has become pivotal in a state that Bush narrowly won four years ago.
Yucca Mountain is the latest issue Bush has used in a concerted effort to chip away at Kerry’s credibility.
Repeatedly in the last week, the president has challenged the senator on the war in Iraq. And Wednesday in Phoenix, he charged that Kerry had taken several positions on the new Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which the administration pushed through Congress.
“I guess it’s not only the wildfires that shift with the wind,” Bush chided.
Without responding directly to Bush about Yucca Mountain, Kerry – campaigning in Carson, Calif. – blasted Bush for suggesting recently that his administration would consider a national sales tax. The president later backed off that remark, but it gave Kerry ammunition in his argument that Bush has been insensitive to the middle class.
“This is from an administration that has offered almost no new ideas for our economy – and the few they have proposed have only hurt middle-class families,” Kerry said.
Kerry also responded to Vice President Dick Cheney’s attacks on him for wavering on the Iraq war and promising to wage a more “sensitive” war on terrorism. “It’s sad that they can only be negative. They have nothing to say about the future vision of America,” Kerry said.
While many unions have endorsed Kerry, the carpenters have held back because they say some of his environmental positions, such as restricting timber harvesting in the Pacific Northwest and his opposition to drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, would mean fewer jobs for their members. Carpenters union leaders meet next month to consider an endorsement but may remain neutral.
One carpenters union member who sat onstage said the president’s speech, which ranged from the economy to national security, didn’t sway him.
“I’m still up in the air,” said George Cappiello, 55, of Shelton, Wash. A Democrat, Cappiello said Bush had no advantage on national security.
“I feel they’re kind of even, Kerry and Bush.”
While in California, the president and the first lady stopped by former first lady Nancy Reagan’s home in the Bel-Air section of Los Angeles, where Reagan said she fully supports Bush’s re-election. After meeting with her for about an hour, the three emerged from the house and the president told reporters that he and Mrs. Bush were “honored to pay our respects.” Former President Reagan died in June.
“I’m so glad you came,” said Reagan, who later issued a statement expressing “my hope that everyone will join” in supporting Bush’s campaign. The president and Reagan did not discuss their disagreement over Bush’s restrictions on stem cell research, which the former first lady opposes. They took no questions from reporters.
Recent polls show Kerry holds a lead of about 11 percentage points in California, despite Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger’s victory in last year’s gubernatorial recall election. Schwarzenegger was introducing Laura Bush at Thursday night’s fund raiser.
Kerry also campaigned in Southern California on Thursday, saying Bush’s tax cuts failed to spur job creation.