Kerry struggles with war message

August 06, 2004|By Jules Witcover

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio -- As John Kerry works his way across the country on his first post-convention tour, he continues to grapple with his voting record on the war in Iraq.

The senator strives to fashion a defense of it while crafting a clarion call for a new foreign policy course.

He is compelled to do so because the Bush campaign is relentlessly reminding voters of two of Mr. Kerry's Senate votes -- for the use of force before the war's start, then later against the president's request for $87 billion to finish the job. The Republican charge of Kerry flip-flops haunts his cross-country odyssey.

Accordingly, Mr. Kerry has been slow to make the war the centerpiece of his campaign, although crowds with their applause demonstrate their hunger to hear more when he does talk about bringing American troops home.

In one weekend talk-show interview in Ohio, Mr. Kerry said that if elected, he would produce "significant, enormous reduction in the level of [U.S.] troops" by the end of his first term. He said he had "enormous cards to play" to increase international participation in Iraq, but "I'm not going to play them before I'm president."

Gradually, however, Mr. Kerry is sharpening his message while cautiously avoiding a categorical pitch to remove the U.S. presence in Iraq before stability is achieved. In Zanesville, Ohio, the other night, his message went like this:

"I defended this nation as a young man and I will defend it as president of the United States. ... I know what we have to do in Iraq now, and I laid it out at the time that we voted. And I have consistently argued how we build on the international support necessary to reduce the cost to the American taxpayer and reduce the risk to the American soldier and get our troops home. ... For 20 years I've worked on the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate. I have more experience in foreign affairs than the president did before he came and even after four years."

Mr. Kerry said he will increase Army manpower by 40,000 troops, not to put them into Iraq "but because our Guard and Reserves are overextended." He said he would "stop this backdoor draft that they're doing" in extending tours of duty.

"We're going to double the number of Special Forces in our army, because that's the way you fight the war on terror," he said. "And we're gonna do what you need to do to build the best intelligence in the world, because the way you win a war on terror is to know who they are, where they are, what they're planning and be able to go after them before they get us. ...

"I will never hesitate to use the force necessary -- swift and certain -- to defend the nation. ... Strength comes through ideals and actions, by using all the tools in America's arsenal. And that includes our public diplomacy, it includes our economic policy, it includes our efforts to reach out to other nations, because I understand working with other countries is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of strength."

Nowhere on the campaign trail, however, does Mr. Kerry address how the United States got into the war, nor does he say much about the diversion it has caused from the original war on terrorism.

He remains somewhat a captive of those early votes that the Republicans keep reminding voters about.

In Scranton, Pa., the other day, a World War II veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, George Waters, asked about Mr. Kerry's message on the war, said: "If someone flip-flops, maybe he has the sense to digest what he's said, adjust and change his mind. He said he was misled by the president, in the way we went into Iraq, so why not admit it? Why not say, `I made a mistake'? We all make mistakes. It would make a hell of a difference if he did."

But that sort of political gamble may be too much to expect from a candidate, especially with his opponents ready to charge him with yet another flip-flop, regardless of his candor.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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