bin laden sneers at the helpless seppos

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    Bin Laden video inflames US election race

    Osama bin Laden injected last-minute uncertainty into the US election campaign on Saturday as his threat to the United States sparked an angry new debate between President George W Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry.

    Mr Bush told top security officials to take all necessary steps to secure Tuesday's vote, while a furore between the candidates broke out over Mr Kerry's response to the bin Laden tape.

    The two sides accused each other of seeking political gain from the Al Qaeda leader's intervention in the campaign.

    "The President did direct them to make sure we were taking all actions that might be necessary," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said after Mr Bush spoke to his domestic security team.

    National security adviser Condoleezza Rice was with the President in Grand Rapids, Michigan when Mr Bush conducted a secure video-link conference with CIA Director Porter Goss, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI chief Robert Mueller.

    Mr Ridge said later that the nationwide terrorist alert would not be elevated because of the video.

    The mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks shocked the United States with his warning that US voters will be held accountable for any leader who seeks to persecute Muslims.

    "Your security is not in the hands of Kerry, Bush or Al Qaeda. Your security is in your own hands. Any state which does not play havoc with our security would automatically ensure its own security," bin Laden said.

    Without making a direct threat of new attacks, he said that "the reasons to repeat what happened remain".

    Mr Bush and Mr Kerry gave tough responses, but the unity quickly gave way to bitter recriminations.

    In a television interview, Mr Kerry vowed to hunt down and kill terrorists and said the United States was united in that desire.

    Then, emphasising one of his campaign themes, he said Mr Bush should have snared bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 2001 war.

    He renewed the attack on Saturday in Appleton, Wisconsin, one of the key swing states expected to decide the election.

    "Let me make it clear to people all across the world: As Americans, we are all absolutely united, all of us. There are no Democrats, there are no Republicans," Mr Kerry told a rally.

    "As I have said for two years now, when Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were cornered in the mountains of Tora Bora, it was wrong to outsource the job of capturing them to Afghan warlords who a week earlier were fighting against us," Mr Kerry said.

    Mr Kerry said Mr Bush should instead have used "the best-trained troops in the world, who wanted to avenge America for what happened in New York and Pennsylvania and in Washington" on September 11.

    Mr Bush called the charges "shameful".

    "Unfortunately, my opponent tonight continued to say things he knows are not true, accusing our military of passing up a chance to get Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora," the President told supporters in Ohio late Friday.

    "It's simply not the case," Mr Bush said.

    "It is especially shameful in the light of a new tape from America's enemy."

    Mr Bush did not mention the issue in his campaign speech on Saturday but did address it in interviews with local television stations in Ohio.

    He stayed on the attack against his rival, repeating well-worn charges that the Massachusetts senator would raise taxes and is unfit to lead the war on terror.

    Bush aides argued that the Kerry line on terrorism was inappropriate in light of bin Laden's tape. White House communications director Dan Bartlett said Mr Kerry should have suspended hostilities for 12 hours.

    The two rivals kept up punishing schedules through the weekend as polls, taken before bin Laden burst into the campaign, showed there was still no decisive lead.

    A Newsweek poll of 1,005 likely voters gave Mr Bush a 50 per cent to 44 per cent lead over Mr Kerry, with a four-percentage-point margin of error. A daily Zogby tracking poll on Saturday gave Mr Kerry a 47 per cent to 46 per cent edge.

    Mr Kerry was to rally voters in Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio on Saturday. His wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry was due to appear with former president Bill Clinton in the southwestern state of New Mexico.

    Mr Bush was scheduled to campaign in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Florida, all critical up-for-grabs states.

    Both sides were also focusing new attention on Hawaii and Arkansas, with Vice President Dick Cheney visiting the Democratic stronghold of Hawaii following polls which showed it could swing.

    Democrats sensed a similar surprise victory in Arkansas, which voted for Bush in 2000.

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