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Kerry Makes Iraq <i>The</i> Issue

By David Paul Kuhn, Chief Political Writer

John Kerry attempted to refocus the election as a referendum on President Bush's "mismanagement" of the war in Iraq on Monday, in his most detailed address yet on national security.

The Democratic nominee offered a long-awaited alternative plan for Iraq, while claiming Mr. Bush's invasion of Iraq had hurt the U.S. war on terrorism.

Kerry held President Bush and his administration accountable for the war's ongoing cost in American lives and money, inferring that the 1,100 dead American soldiers and the more than $100 billion already spent on the war was an outgrowth of Mr. Bush's "failed" policies.

Stopping short of explicitly stating that President Bush had lied, Kerry said "George Bush has not told the truth to the American people" about the status of the war in Iraq. A war, Kerry said, that "traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure."

Kerry's remarks signaled the beginning of his campaign's new strategy to make the war in Iraq the centerpiece of the presidential election.

"The important speech" was "delivered well," utilizing "a series of important themes," said Kathleen Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Jamieson said the speech "clarifies what has been a problem for Kerry."

The problem, she said, surrounds the question as to "why did [Kerry] vote for the authorization for the war and then make a series of confusing statements about the implementation."

Kerry said that Congress gave Mr. Bush "authority to use force to hold Saddam Hussein accountable" because "any president" needed "the threat of force to act effectively."

He did not speak to his vote against the congressional bill authorizing $87 billion for funding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this maintaining the message: President Bush's record is on trial, not mine.

Kerry stressed that the administration's "two main rationales" for the war – "weapons of mass destruction and the al Qaeda/September 11 connection" – have been "proved false."

He also said that if better relations with America's allies had been maintained, as Kerry has stressed repeatedly, the burden of rebuilding Iraq would not lay so exclusively on the United States.

Plainly put, Kerry said he would have won the peace that Mr. Bush has not, by utilizing diplomacy instead of force.

"The news is reinforcing the first theme of the speech," Jamieson added, "which is the Bush administration is misleading the country."

In the second part of his speech, Kerry laid out his long-awaited alternative for Iraq, listing a four-point plan to stabilize the nation that will enable American troops to pull out in four years.

In the wider scope of national security, Kerry differentiated himself from Mr. Bush by stating his goal was to lessen America's military investment in Iraq in order to refocus American attention on "more serious" threats to U.S. security, like North Korea and Iran.

The latest CBS News/New York Times poll gives Mr. Bush a 9-point lead among registered voters. Kerry's speech Monday comes as he attempts to recover from a tumble in popular opinion on the key issue of national security over the past month.

Registered voters' confidence in Kerry's ability to protect the United States from terrorism fell from an already low 32 percent in August to 26 percent at the close of last week. At the same time, President Bush increased from 43 percent to 50 percent during the same period.

Today's speech was the beginning of Kerry's effort to turn his national-security deficit around. With six weeks until Election Day, only time will tell if Monday's address proved too late to be effective.

"The question in this campaign is does this do for him what the Humphrey speech did in 1968, finally clarify his position and begin to rally his own base," Jamieson said. "Humphrey gave one major speech on Vietnam in 1968, breaking from Lyndon Johnson and clarifying his own position. It turned his campaign around. It didn't turn it around sufficiently because he ran out of money the third week in October."

With message, not money, being the bane of Kerry's candidacy, the campaign's newly combative strategy marks a new effort to attack Mr. Bush where he is strongest, national security.

The shift marks the Kerry campaign's acknowledgement that it has so far failed to establish the Democratic nominee as a viable alternative in America's first post-Sept. 11 election.

"Kerry has no alternative as long as terrorism leads the list of issues," Jamieson continued. "The economic signals are mixed. Unless he reassures the country that he is a stronger commander-in-chief, he can't make the economy and health care work for him."

David Paul Kuhn