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Kerry looks to clarify stance, views on Iraq

Iraq is usually the stuff of Top Ten lists on the ''Late Show with David Letterman," but the first guest, Senator John F. Kerry, was engaged in serious political strategy Monday night as he laid out his new bottom line on the war.

''If you had been elected president in 2000, in November of 2000, would we be in Iraq now?" Letterman asked the Democratic presidential nominee.

''No," Kerry replied, citing the lack of a threat such as weapons of mass destruction or a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda.

The CBS studio audience applauded Kerry's statements on Iraq at nearly every turn, but how the broader voting public will respond to his latest positions is a matter of concern among some of his advisers. According to campaign officials, Kerry is trying to clear up confusion about his views on Iraq in advance of his Sept. 30 debate against Bush that will focus exclusively on foreign policy -- a high-stakes encounter in which the Democrat wants to come across as consistent and his war policy to be easily understood.

But as he tries to square his current stand of almost total opposition to the March 2003 invasion with his October 2002 vote authorizing war in Iraq, some campaign advisers see Kerry running a risk: that he will come off as an antiwar candidate, which they insist he is not or that he will play into Bush's criticism of Kerry as a ''flip-flopper."

''I think he's finally clarified where he really was on Iraq, and done so in his own voice without so many qualifiers," said Graham Allison, a Kerry adviser on national security and professor at Harvard University. ''The risk is that he comes off as too antiwar, when the reality is that he is talking like a thinking person. . . .Kerry is saying plainly that Iraq was a wrong war and forcing Bush to explain why he thinks it was a right war."

The challenge for Kerry is also making voters see all of his Iraq statements as a logical evolution -- most of all, that he voted in 2002 to threaten war, not go to war, and that he has said all along that he would not have gone to war in the same way Bush did.

Bush aides -- in a sign of how they plan to use Kerry's seemingly contradictory statements against him at next week's debate and on the campaign trail -- yesterday attacked the Democrat's distinction between the threat of war and war itself. Campaign officials e-mailed political reporters a 1991 statement by Kerry in which he appeared to recognize that voting to authorize the first Gulf War was just as voting to go to war, which he opposed.

''It is a vote about war because whether or not the president exercises his power, we will have no further say after this vote," Kerry said on the floor of the Senate on Jan. 11, 1991, a day before a majority voted to authorize war.

In a news conference in Florida yesterday, Kerry took the opposite position, saying ''It wasn't a vote to go [to war] that day; it was a vote to go through the process of going to the UN, building the allies, and then making a judgment of whether we had to go. The president made his own judgment, and we supported him in that judgment because he was going to war."

Kerry also said at the news conference, ''I have one position on Iraq, one position."

Kerry advisers acknowledge the Bush team has an arsenal of such problematic quotations by Kerry -- so it is necessary for Kerry to be clear now and show a common denominator among his various comments on Iraq:

His ''yea" vote authorizing war in October 2002.

A remark at a May 2003 Democratic candidates' forum: ''I said at the time I would have preferred if we had given diplomacy a greater opportunity, but I think it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein, and when the president made the decision, I supported him, and I support the fact that we did disarm him."

Asked in Sept. 2003 if he would vote against $87 billion in funding for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kerry said: ''I don't think any United States senator is going to abandon our troops and recklessly leave Iraq to -- to whatever follows as a result of simply cutting and running." Yet he voted against the $87 billion the next month.

Kerry said he could be considered an antiwar candidate in January 2004 ''in the sense that I don't believe the president took us to war as he should have."

Last month, he said he would still vote to authorize war against Iraq, even knowing that Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction. ''I believe it's the right authority for a president to have," he said, although ''I would have done this very differently from the way President Bush has."

In a foreign policy speech Monday, Kerry said that he opposed the invasion of Iraq. Also, on the Letterman show, he said he was ''glad" he voted against $87 billion for US troops last year. ''Most of it's going to Halliburton in fraud and no-bid contracts, which is completely inappropriate," Kerry said.

''Kerry is positioning himself so at next week's debate, . . .he can say to voters, in effect: 'I was like you, I trusted the president and I knew Saddam was a problem, so I said let's put the pressure on Iraq -- but I never dreamed Bush would have screwed it up every which way from Sunday,' " said another adviser to Kerry's campaign, who spoke on condition of anonymity. ''Then Kerry can say, 'Will Iraq be any different if we keep George Bush in power for another four years?'

''If Kerry can simply get voters to nod a little with him -- to think 'Kerry's making some sense' -- agree with him, ''then I think the flip-flop charge is negated, and we can get closer to winning this election."

Patrick Healy can be reached at 

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