The president's comments, his first on the missing explosives since Kerry began charging him with incompetence on Monday for failing to secure Iraq after the American-led invasion, reflected concern in the Bush campaign that the issue could be hurting the president only six days before an extraordinarily close election.
The missing explosives were first reported on Monday by The New York Times and CBS News, and since then the issue — and the possibility that American troops in Iraq let the explosives slip into terrorist hands — has dominated the presidential campaign.
``Our military is now investigating a number of possible scenarios, including that the explosives may have been moved before our troops even arrived at the site,'' Bush told thousands of Republicans at an airport rally in Lancaster County, Pa., his first stop of a day that took him through three states. ``This investigation is important and it's ongoing, and a political candidate who jumps to conclusions without knowing the facts is not a person you want as your commander in chief.''
The exact timing of the disappearance of the explosives is critical to the political arguments of each campaign. Kerry's charge that the administration did not adequately secure the country and was unprepared for the war's aftermath presumes that the explosives disappeared after the fall of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003, as officials of the interim Iraqi government say.
But if the explosives disappeared before Saddam fell, as Bush now says is possible, that would undercut Kerry's argument and bolster Bush's accusation that his opponent is making charges without all the facts.
White House officials say that Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, was told around Oct. 15 that the explosives had vanished. White House officials say she also informed the president.
Kerry, who has accused Bush of keeping Americans in the dark about the realities of Iraq, spent his day charging that Bush had put American troops at enormous risk.
``Mr. President, you don't honor our troops or protect them better by putting them in greater danger than they ought to be,'' Kerry declared to 7,500 people packed in a basketball arena in Rochester, Minn. ``The bottom line is your administration was warned, you were put on notice, but you didn't put these explosives on a priority list.''
He added: ``Mr. President, for the sake of our brave men and women in uniform, for the sake of those troops that are in danger because of your wrong decisions, you owe America real answers about what happened, not just political attacks.''
But Bush, who had let his vice president and other aides speak for him on the issue for two days, lashed out at Kerry and did not let up at a single campaign stop. The president repeatedly said the senator would say ``almost anything to get elected.''
``Now, the senator is making wild charges about missing explosives,'' Bush said time and again in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. He then seized on a remark by Richard C. Holbrooke, a Kerry adviser, who said in an appearance on Fox News on Tuesday that all of the facts about the explosives were not known. ``One of his top foreign policy advisors admits he doesn't know the facts. He said, `I don't know the truth.' End quote. Well, think about that. The senator is denigrating the actions of our troops and commanders in the field without knowing the facts.''
Bush also criticized Kerry for ``throwing out the wild claim'' that the American military passed up the chance to capture Osama bin Laden in the caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in the fall of 2001.
``You might remember that — he kept repeating that in the debates,'' Bush said at the Hancock County Fairgrounds in Findlay, Ohio. ``Well, this is unjustified criticism of our military commanders in the field. This is the kind of, worse kind of Monday-morning quarterbacking.''
Bin Laden dropped out of sight in December 2001 during the American-led assault on the Tora Bora region in Afghanistan and is still believed to be somewhere along the Pakistani-Afghan border. Bush charged that Kerry had changed his views on Tora Bora with the political winds, and said that in the fall of 2001 the senator had said that ``I think we've been doing this pretty effectively, and we should continue to do it that way.''
Kerry made the missing explosives his dominant message for the third day running, filling the first half of a 40-minute speech nominally about the economy with an expanding discourse on Iraq. He called the story ``a growing scandal'' and said the public deserves ``a full and honest explanation of how it happened and what the president is going to do about it.''
``What we're seeing is a White House that is dodging and bobbing and weaving in their usual efforts to avoid responsibility — just as they've done every step of the way in our involvement in Iraq,'' he said.
Kerry and his aides are seeking to use the missing explosives as Exhibit A for their argument that Bush has shown ``incompetence'' as commander in chief and been unwilling to change course.
``Three hundred and eighty tons of explosives that could be in the hands of terrorists and he'd do everything exactly the same way?'' he asked in a high school gym packed with perhaps 2,000 enthusiastic supporters in Sioux City, Iowa. ``On Iraq, the president doesn't see it, he doesn't see it, so he can't fix it. I do see it, and I will fix it.''
But Kerry softened the assertion he made the day before that the explosives had already been used in attacks against American troops, saying instead that they ``could very likely be in the hands of terrorists and insurgents — who are actually attacking our forces now 80 times a day on average.''
Kerry's campaign also released a new advertisement, which aides said would begin running Thursday on national cable stations. It shows images of American flags waving as a narrator intones: ``As we see the deepening crisis and chaos in Iraq, as we choose a new commander in chief and a fresh start, we will always support and honor those who serve.''
The last time that international inspectors saw the explosives was in early March 2003, days before the American-led invasion. It is possible, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors say, that Saddam's forces might have attempted to move the material out of the 10 huge bunkers where it was stored in order to save it if the Al Qaqaa facility was bombed.
If so, that would partly support Bush's contention that the Iraqis could have moved 380 tons of material very far without being detected.
But Bush on Thursday did not address a critical issue raised by the discovery of the missed explosives: Why American forces were not alerted to the existence of a huge cache of explosives, even though the IAEA and American officials had publicly discussed the threat it posed, and knew its exact location.
The commander of the troops that went into the Al Qaqaa facility on the way to Baghdad in early April, Col. Joseph Anderson, of the 2nd Brigade of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, has said he was never told the site was considered sensitive, or that international inspectors had visited it before the war began