MANCHESTER, N.H. -- In his most direct appeal yet to New Hampshire voters, Senator John F. Kerry yesterday urged them to reject Howard Dean in this state's Jan. 27 presidential primary because of his "light" experience on national security and recent, eyebrow-raising comments on policy and leadership matters.
Kerry, speaking to supporters at this city's public library, blasted Dean for recently saying that Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden deserved a fair trial for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and that Saddam Hussein's capture did not make America safer.
He also assailed the former Vermont governor's pledge to roll back recent tax cuts and argued that Dean had insulted the two black Democrats in the presidential race by claiming to be the only candidate who talks to whites about race relations.
If the 37-minute speech was a repackaging of Kerry's recent criticisms of Dean, it also amounted to Kerry's most important New Hampshire campaign event of the year, as he framed the primary in stark terms. Kerry painted it as a two-man battle that would be likely to produce the Democratic challenger to President Bush -- and if it were Dean, produce a Bush victory as well.
"I ask you to vote like your future depends on it," Kerry said. "Vote like your health depends on it. Vote like the environment depends on it. Vote like civil liberties, civil rights, and our respect for the Constitution depend on it."
The Massachusetts senator is running second to Dean, by 25 percentage points or so, in recent New Hampshire opinion polls. Kerry says he has been waiting until now -- after the holidays, and one month before the New Hampshire primary -- to seek voters' attention as they prepare to cast ballots.
Kerry devoted the first 18 minutes of his speech to Bush, arguing that "the best of America has been lost" because of the president's foreign, domestic, and tax policies. Few of those remarks were new, but they were prologue anyway: Kerry's advisers had heavily advertised the speech as an attack on Dean, as well as a warning shot to Democrats in New Hampshire and nationwide that nominating Dean -- who has built his candidacy on angry opposition to the Iraq war -- would lead them to defeat against a wartime incumbent next November.
The Dean camp, which has taken lately to describing Kerry's criticisms as "whining," yesterday dismissed the senator's comments as a negative attack that would turn off voters.
"It's a little Dean-obsessed, isn't it?" Dean spokesman Jay Carson said. "Clearly he has nothing positive to say about himself if he's going to continue his distortions and negative attacks."
Borrowing from the Robert Frost poem, "The Road Not Taken," Kerry argued that "two roads are diverging" for Democrats in the presidential race -- "a road of confusion and contradiction" marked by "simple answers and the slip of the tongue," pursued by Dean, and "the road of strength and principle," by Kerry.
"New Hampshire's decision comes down to this: A choice between a candidate who, for all his anger, is on the wrong track economically and has no experience on the major security issues of the day, or a steady and consistent hand with experience in growing our economy and balancing the budget, and making America more secure," Kerry said. "It's a choice between anger and answers."
Kerry also sought to assail Dean on behalf of their seven fellow Democratic candidates.Noting that Dean called himself the only candidate who has balanced budgets and talked about race relations, Kerry said Dean was wrong to "twist the truth" against "courageous Democrats" in the race who voted for Bill Clinton's balanced budget plans in the early 1990s.
Kerry said Dean had insulted the two black candidates, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former US senator Carol Moseley Braun, for laying claim to the race issue. Kerry also cited recent comments by Dean that have troubled some Democratic leaders and primary voters, such as Dean's remark that he did not want to "prejudge" the outcome of a bin Laden trial.
"No, we can't beat Bush by being Bush-lite," Kerry said, using a favorite phrase of Dean's. "But we also can't beat George Bush by being light on national security, light on fairness for middle-class Americans, and light on the values that make us Democrats."
Speaking to reporters after his speech, Kerry said of Dean's bin Laden remark: "The question asked [to Dean] was, do you believe Osama bin Laden should be tried in the United States and given the death penalty? The answer to both questions is a simple yes. Yes and Yes."
Carson, asked about the bin Laden issue, cited another recent interview in which Dean said: "As a president, I would have to defend the process of the rule of law. But as an American, I want to make sure he gets the death penalty he deserves."
With yesterday's speech, Kerry put in place a key piece in his strategy to win the Democratic nomination. He already has increased his attention to the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, on Jan. 19, moving key aides to his Des Moines headquarters and making more visits.
In recent public opinion polls, Kerry is running third behind Representative Richard A. Gephardt and Dean; he is hoping for a "surprise" second-place showing, a Kerry adviser said.
In New Hampshire, Kerry and his campaign surrogates will reiterate the points in yesterday's speech in the coming weeks. The campaign also is launching a new television ad tomorrow featuring former New Hampshire governor Jeanne Shaheen, Kerry's national campaign chair, who will make a subtle jab at her old neighbor, Dean.
"I've worked with nearly all the Democratic candidates running for president," Shaheen states in the text of the ad. "John Kerry has the experience and judgment needed to keep our nation safe."
Yesterday morning began for Kerry with a new necktie -- a red background with "JK" and "04" imprints scattered among American flags -- and a breakfast-time visit to Mary Ann's diner in Derry.
His longest discussion there, 10 minutes, was on the Iraq war with Russell and Pamela Merritt, both critics of the conflict, who challenged Kerry on his vote authorizing military action there. Kerry described the reasons behind his Iraq vote, then tried to get the Merritts to agree with him that Bush should have spent more time erecting a hard line against Iraq at the United Nations. The Merritts, both favoring Dean, responded skeptically, though Russell Merritt seemed a bit open to being won over. "I'm waiting to see if Howard Dean emerges weakened from all of this criticism he's getting," Merritt, a Navy veteran, said after Kerry moved on. "If [Dean] looks really weak, I'll probably go with whoever stands the best chance at beating Bush."
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.