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Kerry backs extending mandate of 9/11 panel

PHILADELPHIA -- Senator John F. Kerry ditched his rosy-toned stump speech yesterday as he sought to undermine the White House's latest political offensive in the war on terror, assailing President Bush's ability as commander-in-chief and calling for the bipartisan 9/11 commission to monitor US counterterrorism planning for the next 18 months.

Kerry and Bush have each tried to one-up the other over the last week to claim the mantle of 9/11 reformer: After the commission issued a set of recommendations Thursday, Kerry endorsed them swiftly, leaving Bush to scramble Monday while on vacation at his Texas ranch.

The president spoke with senior advisers by videoconference about quickly adopting some of the commission's ideas, which aim to correct government and intelligence failings that have made the United States vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

At a rally yesterday near the world's largest naval base in Norfolk, Va., a site chosen to underscore the presumptive Democratic nominee's two tours of duty as a Navy lieutenant in Vietnam, Kerry moved again to outdo Bush and portray himself as a man of action. He pledged to implement 16 commission proposals that the president can enact on his own, such as deepening ties to Muslim nations and restructuring the CIA. He also said he would ask the commissioners to make status reports every six months over the next year-and-a-half, starting in December, on the government's progress at carrying out the overhauls and combating terrorism. Commissioners said they would embrace the 18-month extension of their mandate.

"We have the strength as a nation to do what has to be done -- the only thing we don't have is time," Kerry said at an outdoor rally before 1,500 people, with the USS Wisconsin battleship floating in the background. "When the commission issued their report, I called for immediate action. Not talk. Not vague promises. Not excuses. Backpedaling and going slow is something America can't afford."

Lee Gunn, a retired vice admiral who spoke before Kerry, also questioned Bush's instincts as a wartime leader and said American voters should not be afraid that electing Kerry might disrupt the continuity of war planning and homeland security in Washington. "There'll be some who say you can't change leaders in the middle of a combat period, in the middle of a war," Gunn said, standing beside Kerry at the nautical park. "That's nonsense. It's so important we must change leaders in the middle of this."

White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan declined several times yesterday to convey Bush's response to the proposed 18-month extension. "He is focused on the recommendations the commission has put forward and those steps that we can take in working with the Congress to improve intelligence or to make us safer," Buchan said of the president.

A Bush campaign spokesman, Steve Schmidt, also accused Kerry of seizing on the commission's report as a "political opportunity."

"His leadership on this issue highlights the difference between making campaign statements and making decisions to lead the country," Schmidt said of the president.

Yet Kerry's Democratic allies moved swiftly to ratchet up the pressure on Bush yesterday, deriding him as a president on vacation while important overhauls are pending that would affect the outcome of the war on terror.

"Everyone's scrambling down to Crawford in video conference calls," Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said in a conference call with reporters yesterday that was organized by the Kerry campaign.

Overhauling the nation's intelligence network, Rockefeller said, "requires not just a couple of days of news conferences --this requires constant, constant pressure."

Asked whether Kerry was pressing Bush to move swiftly because of the threat of a terrorist attack, possibly to disrupt the 2004 election, Kerry's national security adviser Rand Beers told reporters: "The president has said and others have said that we are in a period of extreme threat and vulnerability at this point in time. . . .He's right -- time is not on our side."

By throwing down a gauntlet on the lifespan of the commission, whose creation and independent inquiry of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were initially opposed by Bush, Kerry was also trying to fire up his a cross-country road trip to the Democratic convention that began Friday.

As a result of the news vacuum surrounding Kerry, the media pounced Monday night and yesterday on an odd-looking photo of Kerry, taken Monday, wearing baby-blue, head-to-toe protective coveralls during a tour of the Kennedy Space Center. Campaign officials said that Kerry did not know that a NASA video camera was filming him at the time.

The Bush campaign circulated the photo to reporters under the heading, "Earth to Kerry," and the New York Post, a conservative-leaning tabloid, was among those mocking the senator with the headline, "Boston, we have a problem."

Last night, Kerry arrived in Philadelphia for a rally.

Kerry plans to arrive at Logan International Airport before noon today and ride a water taxi with supporters and fellow veterans to Charlestown.

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.

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