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In speech to Jews, Kerry hints at past

DES MOINES -- Speaking before Jewish Democrats at a synagogue here yesterday, presidential candidate John F. Kerry made a connection between his own distant Jewish heritage and members of the audience, but later said he did not mean to suggest that he thought of himself as partially Jewish.

In a 30-minute appearance that dwelled mostly on American leadership and foreign policy, Kerry at one point described the violence against Jews in World War II and then said: "Had leaders seen the world differently when there was cause to see it differently, life might have been different. We understand -- and I say we, because I recently learned of my own ties to the Jewish faith, a hundred years ago, which opens a whole new door, a window of connection."

A Boston Globe inquiry early this year found that Kerry's paternal grandparents were of Jewish origin. Kerry had not been aware of the background of his grandfather, who converted to Catholicism. Kerry is a practicing Catholic.

In an interview after his speech in Des Moines, Kerry said he did not mean to identify himself as a grandchild of Jews, but rather used the word "we" as a "generic" reference to the audience and all Americans, saying people had a "broad understanding" of threats to members of the Jewish faith and other minority groups.

"What I was thinking of was, people of America understand it, and I also have this added vantage point by which to digest it," Kerry said of his comments.

A Kerry aide later noted that the senator has used similar language "about his Jewish roots" in past speeches. During a Florida speech in early February, the aide noted, Kerry described learning that his grandparents were Jewish and said he was "excited about learning the full measure" of his family's history.

Kerry is in a tight race with former Vermont governor Howard B. Dean and Representative Richard A. Gephardt to win the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19.

Describing his vision of muscular leadership on foreign policy and national security, Kerry pronounced himself skeptical of presidential candidates -- like front-runner Dean, whom he did not name -- who convey the image of Washington "outsiders," saying they might not have the experience to immediately begin fighting the war on terrorism as president.

Kerry said voters "always hear these outsiders bashing Washington and talking about, `I come from here, I can go down there and do this.'

"But remember how long it took every one of them to get their feet under them," he said, naming Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and President Bush -- all, like Dean, former governors.

"We saw what happened even in the first two years of the Clinton administration: We lost the House and Congress," Kerry said. "And George Bush is a poster child for the notion that after Sept. 11, no foreign policy experience, no security experience, no military experience is absolutely not the equation for the presidency of the United States."

Kerry rarely has anything but praise for Clinton, though he does sometimes criticize his 1993 plan to overhaul the nation's health insurance system..

In the later interview, Kerry said he was pointing out that these leaders had problems -- some small, some great -- during their first months in Washington. He also said he believed that he, too, has been an outsider, noting his early attacks on the Reagan administration in the 1980s as the Iran-Contra scandal was unfolding.

Asked why those four presidents needed time to adjust, Kerry said: "I don't think they had the experience and the relationships, and they came in with a team that wasn't particularly linked to some of the ways in which you can get things done." If elected next November, Kerry would be the first sitting member of Congress to win the White House since President Kennedy.

Kerry also assailed the Bush administration's support for the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, given the latter's ties with groups that allegedly have connections to terrorism and its support of Islamic fundamentalist schools. Kerry contended that such schools, which often include anti-Western curricula, had "an unholy alliance" with the Saudi government.

"The Saudi relationship with respect to the United States is one of the most disgraceful, unexplained, overreaching relationships that I've seen in public life," Kerry said. "There are enormous questions that need to be answered about it." Kerry addressed his own Jewish ties only briefly, at the start of his speech before an audience of about 100. There are roughly 3,000 Jews in greater Des Moines, and fewer than five synagogues.

Before noting his own connection with the audience, Kerry told them about the need for "leadership" with wartime threats facing the United States, saying: "There is no community that I need to say less to about how dangerous and complicated the world is. There's no community that has lived with history in as poignantly and as costly a fashion as you have. So you know what I mean when I talk about leadership."

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.

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