Kerry attempts to overcome portrayal as waffler on war

Allies advise Democrat to focus on Bush's errors

Election 2004

September 19, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The singsong chant and back-and-forth wave have become a staple of President Bush's campaign events.

"Fliiip-flop, fliiip-flop," his supporters shout, using the Bush campaign's epithet of choice for John Kerry as they wave their arms in mock vacillation.

And with each passing week, as he gives complicated, sometimes contradictory explanations of his stance on the Iraq war, Kerry has handed the Bush campaign more ammunition.

His aides say Kerry's position on Iraq has never changed, and a close look at his votes and statements over the past two years suggests that may be true.

"When Republicans make those attacks, they don't like to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; they like to sell what they can to voters and pretend it's the whole story," said Mark Kitchens, a Kerry campaign spokesman.

But Kerry's own rhetoric on the issue has left plenty of room for interpretation. And so far, the Bush campaign has succeeded masterfully in exploiting Kerry's seemingly conflicting stances.

"They've been very politically deft and skillful" at painting Kerry as a waffler, said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, a close friend of Kerry. "I'm dumbfounded at how successful they've been."

In a typical jab at Kerry, Bush argued in a speech here Friday that Kerry has taken "seven or maybe eight different positions on the war in Iraq."

With the American death toll rising in Iraq as Election Day nears, the war could become the defining issue of the presidential race, with potential peril for Bush. But as Kerry works to highlight U.S. failures there and lay them at Bush's feet, his muddled history on the issue has made his task much harder.

Kerry vigorously defends his vote two years ago to authorize the war. Last month, he said that he would do so again, even knowing as he now does that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction.

But on Wednesday, Kerry said in an interview that there were no circumstances under which the United States should have invaded Iraq.

"I voted based on weapons of mass destruction," Kerry told radio host Don Imus. "The president distorted that, and I've said that."

Then he added, "I think it was the right vote based on what Saddam Hussein had done, and I think it was the right thing to do to hold him accountable."

Imus, a Kerry supporter, concluded, "I asked him a number of questions about Iraq, and I can't tell you what he said."

Later in the week, Kerry took a different tack, trying to shift the spotlight from his own stance to Bush's handling of the war. In several appearances, Kerry loosed his sharpest attacks yet on the president for his Iraq policies, accusing Bush of lying to Americans about a chaotic and violent situation.

Kerry's aides argue that there is nothing contradictory in his votes and statements. In 2002, when he voted for the war resolution, Kerry believed the only way to disarm Hussein or verify that he was not a threat was to give the president the power to wage war against him, said Susan Rice, a senior Kerry campaign national security adviser.

But Kerry "wouldn't have rushed to war," Rice said, and he faults Bush for doing so without giving weapons inspections time to work or forging a global coalition to support such action.

Kerry set those conditions in a speech he gave before he voted "yes" to authorize the war.

Difficult vote

The vote was a difficult calculation for Kerry, who first ran for Congress on an anti-war platform and voted in 1991 against giving President George Bush authority to wage war with Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait. In 2002, Kerry, who had already set his sights on a presidential run, weighed his vote knowing that Republicans would likely try to cast him as a Massachusetts liberal who was weak on national security.

Backing the war resolution allowed Kerry to counter that criticism, and his heavily hedged speech gave him room to blame Bush later for botching the war.

Some foreign policy analysts outside his campaign agree that the two are not contradictory.

"The issue of the original vote versus how the war has been executed since 2003 are two totally separable issues, and [Kerry] is completely right to say that and to point out that this war has been unbelievably badly handled, badly managed," said Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the liberal-leaning Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

More difficult to reconcile, Mathews said, is the comment Kerry made to reporters last month at the Grand Canyon, that even if he had known in 2002 that no weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq, he still would have supported the war resolution. "I think it was the right authority for the president to have," Kerry said. He went on to criticize Bush for using that power.

Indeed, the Bush campaign points to that statement - one viewed with chagrin by many Democrats - as proof that Kerry's position is shifting in the wind.

Critical rhetoric

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