DENVER - In a last-minute flurry of accusations before their final debate, John Kerry tried to tie President Bush to record oil prices while the president charged that his Democratic opponent has totally misunderstood the war on terror.
On the way to the debate that will range over domestic issues from the economy to health care, Bush is reaching out to military supporters in Colorado Springs, where the war in Iraq is the chief concern.
Bush's campaigning today in the conservative heart of Colorado is an effort to counter Kerry's surprising bid to win a state that has voted Republican in nine of the past 11 presidential elections. One poll shows Bush ahead in Colorado; another shows the two men in a close race.
"Kerry is here to try to make up electoral votes he can't get in the South," said Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy. "John Kerry and the Democrats are setting a tall order for themselves by making a play for Colorado."
On Monday, Kerry lashed out at a president who has taken to calling the Democrat a tax-and-spend liberal with a 20-year Senate record of voting in favor of tax increases.
The record price of oil "means a lot more profit for this president's friends in the oil industry. But for most middle class Americans, the Bush tax increase is a tax increase that they can't afford," Kerry said in New Mexico.
Bush, also campaigning in New Mexico, ridiculed Kerry for saying in an interview published Sunday in The New York Times Magazine, "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives but they're a nuisance."
"I couldn't disagree more," the president said. "Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of nuisance. Our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive."
The Kerry campaign counterattacked, circulating a 2-year-old comment from Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser in the first Bush administration, who said the United States can break the back of terrorism "so that it is a horrible nuisance, and not a paralyzing influence."
Nationally, a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll taken Saturday and Sunday showed Bush and Kerry in a statistical dead heat, with 49 percent for the Democrat and 48 percent for Bush among likely voters. The poll's margin of error was 4 percentage points.
In Colorado, Kerry could be helped by the Senate race involving Democrat Ken Salazar, who has the support of over three-quarters of Hispanic voters in Colorado, according to recent polls.
"With the Hispanic vote, you could have a coattails effect for Kerry," says political science professor Andrew Dunham, a colleague of Loevy at Colorado College.
Bush gave a boost to Salazar's opponent, Pete Coors, spending the day in his company and appearing with him at an outdoor rally Monday in the Red Rocks Park in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains near Denver.
In a state where the military is an integral part of the culture, retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who commanded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was on hand to introduce his former commander in chief, calling him a man with "the character not to tie but to win against the terrorists."
It is a difficult time for Colorado Springs, where 7,000 troops stationed at nearby Fort Carson are returning to Iraq in the coming months for a second tour of duty. During the first deployment of 12,000 troops last year, more than 40 were killed and more than 500 were wounded.
From Colorado Springs, Bush was heading to Arizona and a Republican Party fund-raiser in Paradise Valley.
The final Bush-Kerry debate is Wednesday night at Arizona State University.