Russian President Vladimir Putin waded into the American election campaign in support of George W. Bush Monday, declaring that if the president lost, it would lead to the "spread of terrorism" around the world. The endorsement was a significant boost for Bush, who has been under fire from John Kerry for failing to maintain international support for the U.S. "war on terror."
"International terrorists have set as their goal inflicting the maximum damage to Bush, to prevent his election to a second term," Putin said at a Central Asian summit in Tajikistan. "If they succeed in doing that, they will celebrate a victory over America and over the entire antiterror coalition. In that case, this would give an additional impulse to international terrorists and to their activities, and could lead to the spread of terrorism to other parts of the world." He added, however, that he would respect "any choice by the American people."
It was by far his strongest endorsement of Bush to date, and the most direct intervention in the race so far by a foreign leader. The endorsement came as Bush regained a small but significant lead in the polls after his mediocre performance in the three debates with Kerry, and on a day when he accused his rival of retreat in the war on terror, playing on memories of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the hopes of plucking off the reliably Democratic state of New Jersey.
New Jersey lost nearly 700 citizens when hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center, and the president's visit to the southern parts of the state was aimed at exploiting strong fears of another attack. Voters in New Jersey overwhelmingly rate terror as their top election issue, providing an opening for Bush to try to loosen Kerry's grip on what had once been viewed as solidly Democratic terrain.
Bush hammered home his point, saying Kerry's criticism of the war on Iraq showed that he could not be relied on to defend America from attack. "Senator Kerry's approach would commit a response only after America is hit. That kind of Sept. 10 attitude is no way to protect our country," he said. The president argued that Kerry failed to understand the changed world after Sept. 11, clinging to the "mirage of security" that prevailed in the 1990s.
Yesterday's remarks by Putin were timely for Bush. Since he declared after a first meeting with Putin that he had been able to look into his soul, relations between the two men have been close, and they have portrayed each other as allies in the war on terror.
At a rally in West Palm Beach, Fla., Kerry accused Bush of "arrogant boasting" about doing everything right in Iraq, of diverting efforts from the war on terror and "cavalierly, ideologically and arrogantly" dismissing top generals. His running mate, John Edwards, accused Bush of trying to "con the American people into believing that he is the only one who can fight and win the war on terrorism."