Tensions between the political camps of President Bush and his presumed Democratic rival, John Kerry, escalated after an off-hand remark by the Massachusetts senator at a Chicago sheet metal plant Wednesday. Kerry was unaware he was still being recorded when he told a worker that the administration was "the most crooked ... lying group I've ever seen." Bush's campaign demanded an apology. Kerry's spokeswoman said the comment was not meant as a personal attack, but as an indication that he will not back down from the Republican "machine."

Bush, meanwhile, sought to deflect criticisms of his economic polices during a Cleveland stop, where he expressed sympathy with the anxieties of people in Ohio, where many jobs have been lost. On Thursday he traveled to New York for a fund-raiser and to participate in a groundbreaking ceremony for a memorial for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The AFL-CIO approved a $44 million plan to target undecided and swing union voter households in key states with get-out-the-vote effort aimed at ousting Bush Nov. 2.

American Susan Lindauer was arrested in Takoma Park, Md., Thursday on charges that she conspired to sell secret information to Iraqi intelligence agents for $10,000. The charges are contained in an indictment, brought last year, against two sons of a former Iraqi diplomat who allegedly passed information to agents about Iraqi dissidents living in the US.

During a Senate hearing about Major League Baseball's drug polices, Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R) of Arizona said a failure to adopt tougher antidrug measures could spur lawmakers to intervene. The league instituted drug tests in 2002, but its policy is widely viewed as soft compared to those of other professional sports leagues.

Retail sales rose by 0.6 percent in February, ahead of projections, with a 2.7 percent jump in car sales, the biggest such increase in nearly a year, the Commerce Department said.

The House voted overwhelmingly to ban class-action lawsuits that allow litigants to hold fast-food outlets and and other restaurants responsible for customer food intake and potential obesity. The Senate now considers the measure.

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