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Hastert's al Qaeda comment draws fire

Idea that terrorists want Kerry to win called 'silly,' 'disgraceful'

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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
John F. Kerry
Dennis Hastert
George W. Bush

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Top Democrats slapped back Sunday at a remark by House Speaker Dennis Hastert that al Qaeda leaders want Sen. John Kerry to beat President Bush in November.

At a campaign rally Saturday in his Illinois district with Vice President Dick Cheney, Hastert said al Qaeda "would like to influence this election" with an attack similar to the train bombings in Madrid days before the Spanish national election in March.

When a reporter asked Hastert if he thought al Qaeda would operate with more comfort if Kerry were elected, the speaker said, "That's my opinion, yes."

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe called Hastert's comments "disgraceful," saying there was "no room for this in our political discourse."

"And I remind you that, you know, we could have done a lot better," McAuliffe said on CNN's "Late Edition."

"The president of the United States, on August 6th of 2001, was told in his briefing that America was going to be attacked by al Qaeda and they may use airplanes," McAuliffe said, referring to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

"He didn't call the FAA. He didn't leave his monthlong vacation. He sat down there."

Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, said Hastert "has joined the fear-mongering choir."

"Let me just say this in the simplest possible terms," Edwards said at a rally in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. "When John Kerry is president of the United States, we will find al Qaeda where they are and crush them before they can do damage to the American people."

Hastert, who as speaker heads the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, showed no sign of backing off his comments.

His spokesman, John Feehery, said Sunday that the speaker's comments "were consistent with the speaker's belief that John Kerry would be weak on the war."

"If John Kerry is perceived as being weak on the war, then of course, his election would be perceived as a good thing by the terrorists," Feehery said in a written response to questions about Hastert's remarks.

"The fact that John Kerry can't make up his mind about the war only strengthens that perception."

Neither the Bush campaign nor the White House had any comment on Hastert's remarks, but Bush has accused Kerry of repeatedly changing his position on the war in Iraq.

The comments followed a remark by Cheney earlier this month that Americans might be subjected to another terrorist attack if they were to make "the wrong choice" in November.

Cheney later said that any president must expect more attacks and that his point had been that he felt Bush was better prepared to deal with the threat.

Some Republicans played down Hastert's comments Sunday.

"I doubt that Osama bin Laden is likely to weigh in on our presidential election," said Rep. Chris Cox of California, chairman of the House Policy Committee and fourth-ranking member of the Republican leadership behind Hastert.

Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska called the remarks "silly."

"I think most Americans understand that, regardless of who's president, the terrorists are still going to be terrorists, and they're going to still target Americans," said Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees.

"And I don't think terrorists of the world sit around the campfire gauging who's the easier president to deal with."

It was the second time this month that Hastert's comments have provoked a public row.

Billionaire George Soros, a major backer of Democratic causes, asked the House Ethics Committee to investigate Hastert after the speaker suggested in a television interview that Soros got money from "drug groups."

Hastert later said he was referring to organizations to which Soros has contributed that favor drug legalization, but he ignored Soros' demand for an apology.

Analysts differ on just how much the Madrid bombings influenced the Spanish election.

Some say they prompted Spaniards to vote out Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, a key U.S. ally in the Iraq war. Others say Aznar's insistence on blaming Basque separatists, not Islamist terrorists, tipped the electorate against him.

In any case, Aznar's successor, Socialist Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, withdrew Spanish troops from Iraq shortly after taking office.

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