In an escalating war of words, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D) criticized each other over positions on Iraq during campaign appearances in Pennsylvania and Florida. Bush accused Kerry of choosing "the easy path of protest and defeatism" while suggesting that a Democratic administration would make the US more vulnerable to terrorist attack. Kerry fired back, citing a report in Monday's Washington Post that Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the former leader of US forces in Iraq, warned almost a year ago that the Army's fighting capacity was being undercut by a lack of supplies. In an interview with the Associated Press, the president said he doesn't envision a longtime presence of American troops in Iraq, such as in Korea or Europe, but he did not speculate on a time frame for withdrawal.

Florida's first day of early voting was marked by long lines but few balloting glitches. The problems Monday included a brief computer system crash in one county and voter complaints of an incomplete paper ballot. Florida is one of 32 states that allow residents to vote at the polls before Election Day.

The Social Security Administration announced a new cost-of-living adjustment that will translate into a rise in average monthly benefits of around $20. More than half that amount, however, may be eaten up by higher Medicare premiums, according to economists. In another Social Security development, congressional investi- gators said Monday that the program had doled out almost $1 billion too much in disability payments last year, frequently sending checks to people who'd returned to work.

The Supreme Court breathed new hope into Democratic objections to a highly controversial Republican redistricting plan in Texas Monday. According to The Washington Post, the high court's decision to order a three-judge district court to reexamine its approval of the plan will not affect the impending election in the state. The plan, drafted by a Republican majority, is intended to bolster the GOP presence in an evenly divided legislature.

Episcopal priests in Vermont, who began blessing same-sex unions in 2000, said parishes in the state will continue to do so despite the call Monday by a special Anglican commission for the US Episcopal Church to stop the practice.

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