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The ghost following Kerry

"DEAN, DEAN, Dean, Dean," presidential candidate John Kerry once muttered in frustration during the Democratic primary season that now seems like ancient political history.

Kerry eventually buried presidential challenger Howard Dean. But Dean's clear antiwar message outlived his own candidacy. With good reason, it continues to haunt the man who beat the former Vermont governor and is now trying to beat George W. Bush.

In his Monday speech at New York University, Kerry called the war in Iraq "a profound diversion from that war (on terror) and the battle against our greatest enemy, Osama bin Laden and the terrorists." That was strong, clear Dean-like language. On David Letterman, Kerry answered "no" when asked, "If you had been elected president in 2000, in November of 2000, would we be in Iraq now?" The Letterman audience cheered the straightforward response.

Two days later, The Globe's Patrick Healy was writing about the "risk" some unnamed Kerry campaign advisers see with an answer such as the one given on Letterman: "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."

The Bush campaign unveiled a new ad yesterday, called "Windsurfing." It shows the wetsuit-clad Kerry switching directions, and recounts his positions "for and against" the war, among other issues. So there is risk in pursuing the clarity of the NYU speech, up against a year's worth of less-clear Kerry proclamations.

But, with Election Day drawing closer, the bigger risk lies in failing to sharpen the choice between Kerry and Bush. The ugly events in Iraq force every American to look at what is happening at this moment -- not what happened a year ago or two years ago -- and question whether the country should stay the course, as Bush says, or change course, as Kerry now puts it.

I wish Kerry had not voted to authorize Bush to take the country to war, especially since I believe Kerry did it for the wrong reason: politics. He did not want to be the George McGovern of 2004. At the time of the vote, Kerry was willing to leave the antiwar constituency to Dean. But now he needs it; it is bigger in 2004 than it was in 2002. And he needs it energized and committed to a Kerry victory. So far, it is neither.

So now I wish Kerry would say that he and Bush were both wrong in assessing the initial situation in Iraq leading up to the US invasion. In humility, there is strength. In Bush-like stubbornness, there is weakness.

Last December, Dean was derided by the political establishment on both sides of the aisle when he said that the capture of Saddam Hussein "has not made America safer." At the time, Kerry said Dean's statement "is still more proof that all the advisers in the world can't give Howard Dean the military and foreign policy experience, leadership skills, or diplomatic temperament necessary to lead this country through dangerous times." On Monday at NYU, Kerry put himself firmly in Dean territory when he said of Hussein's removal from power and subsequent capture, "We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure."

That Dean-like statement from Kerry should not scare Kerry's advisers. It is honest, accurate, and preferable to more convoluted Kerry campaign rhetoric.

It also holds appeal for women. The pollsters and pundits say women will vote for the candidate who makes them feel most secure. Some polls show that female support is shifting to Bush. Kerry needs to change that dynamic -- and quickly. By voting to authorize war, Kerry essentially turned the car keys over to a president who recklessly drove America to the wrong war in the wrong country at the wrong time. Taking back the car keys should make many women feel more, not less, secure. Putting Kerry in the driver's seat makes sense, as long as he stops driving around Iraq in circles.

When you make a wrong turn in traffic, life, or war, you don't keep on going. You stop, acknowledge that you were wrong, and do what it takes to get back on track. As women know, a man who admits that is rare indeed, and worth electing to the presidency.

For Kerry, the ghost of Howard Dean, presidential candidate, speaks truth. The war with Iraq was a mistake, and it is making this country -- and the world -- less secure. Acknowledging that is a sign of leadership.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is 

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