John F. Kerry's August swoon began with a detour on Iraq.
Standing just feet from the edge of a sunny Grand Canyon one month ago, a calm and confident Kerry interrupted a day dedicated to domestic politics to discuss, once again, his 2002 vote for the resolution authorizing war against Saddam Hussein.
President Bush -- hoping to blur differences between the two candidates over the explosive issue of Iraq -- had challenged Kerry to declare whether he would have supported the war knowing what he does now about Iraq's weapons program. Kerry strolled up to reporters, took what two of his own aides privately called obvious political bait and declared without equivocation that "yes, I would have voted for the authority" for Bush to wage the conflict.
With one simple answer, Kerry stepped on his message for the week and provided the Bush campaign the political ammunition it sought. Kerry has since struggled to explain how he would handle Iraq differently -- and more effectively -- than Bush, as polls have shown voters losing support for his ability to do a better job than the president on this issue. A new USA Today-Gallup poll showed Bush has doubled his lead on handling Iraq over the past month to 13 percentage points -- 54 percent to 41 percent -- to help him pull ahead of Kerry overall for the first time this campaign.
Many Democrats say the flap over a two-year-old vote is illustrative of the mistakes made by the Kerry campaign during August and the obstacles he must clear in the next two months -- a penchant for engaging in fights over his past, conveying complicated positions that make it hard to draw contrasts with Bush and allowing a loose campaign operation to respond haphazardly to incoming fire.
At the same time, the exchange showed how successful Bush and his allies have often been at drawing attention away from their own vulnerabilities by methodically portraying Kerry as all over the place on the big issues of the day. As the Grand Canyon incident and a similar fight over Kerry's Vietnam War legacy showed, Kerry often played into the GOP's hands over the past month.
"From a tactical point . . . [Kerry] lost the initiative in making this election about George Bush," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), an official in the Clinton White House. "George Bush cannot handle an election about his last four years, [but] Kerry has to make this election about" that.
Reacting to his August slip-ups, Kerry is moving quickly to shift strategies and regain momentum, bringing aboard several seasoned advisers for key roles -- most important, Democrats say, putting longtime strategist John Sasso on the campaign plane full time, organizational wiz Michael Whouley in a leadership role at the Democratic National Committee and elevating the communication roles of several veterans of the Clinton White House. More lower-level additions will be announced in the days ahead, a top aide said. And Kerry will strike back at Bush over Iraq with a speech and new ad today.
Kerry has already drawn fire from fellow Democrats for his slow response to attacks in August on his service in Vietnam and antiwar activities afterward. Indeed, several polls show most Americans are aware of charges made by the group known as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that Kerry lied to win war medals and an early release and betrayed fellow soldiers by relaying stories of war crimes to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he returned home.
Kerry fought with aides over how aggressively to respond -- initially staying silent despite his better judgment, friends say. Eventually he did fight back to defend his medals, and many of the charges have been discredited. Aides say Kerry may soon apologize for some of his most heated comments during the Vietnam War protests of the early 1970s, a move that would rekindle the debate for a few more days.
Yet strategists from both sides said the effectiveness of anti-Kerry ads speaks to another ominous development for Kerry last month: the large numbers of voters who said they still do not know what he stands for and whether they can trust him to do a better job on the twin threats of Iraq and terrorism. This was the crux of the ads run by the Bush campaign this summer and the president's argument against Kerry on Iraq, which voters rank as one of the top three issues of this presidential campaign.
"If you were to say what was the pivotal moment in August, I don't think it included Swift boats," Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said. "I think it was the back-and-forth between the president and Senator Kerry over Iraq."
Though Kerry is correct when he says he always held a different view on Iraq, especially an unwavering insistence that the United States should have built a much broader international coalition before attacking Hussein and occupying a foreign country, the candidate's comments throughout August served only to complicate his case, several Democratic operatives said.
In addition to the debate over the Iraq vote, Kerry was reluctantly pulled into a broader discussion during the first two weeks of August over whether he, like Bush, would have gone to war with Iraq if he were president now. At first Kerry said maybe. Then Jamie Rubin, the candidate's national security adviser, said that "in all probability" a Kerry administration would have waged war to depose Hussein by now. Several Kerry friends and advisers considered Rubin's comment a mistake, but the campaign did not issue a retraction until weeks later -- on Aug. 24.
Tony Coelho, who chaired Al Gore's presidential campaign in 2000, said he was "very disgusted" by how Kerry's top advisers handled the Iraq debate last month. "You are paying these guys a lot of damn money. If Kerry is screwing up, where is our Karl Rove?"
The debate over withdrawing troops from Iraq that escalated last month and resurfaced Monday also puzzled many Democrats.
Early in the campaign, Kerry maintained that it was impossible to predict when U.S. troops would return home without talking to the commanders in the field. He even suggested increasing the number of U.S. troops. This summer, however, Kerry set a new goal of reducing troops by the end of his first term. But in an interview with National Public Radio in early August, he said he could "significantly" reduce troops during the first six months of his administration -- a new position aides immediately set out to soften in private conversations with reporters.
During the brief conversation with reporters at the Grand Canyon, Kerry backpedaled a bit, saying his goal would be to simply reduce the number in the first six months with a firmer target of bringing most of the troops home by the end of his first term. On Labor Day, Kerry told a questioner at a rally that he could bring all of the troops home by term's end.
As several GOP and Democratic strategists said, every day Kerry spends explaining his past or clarifying positions is a day won by Bush.
"The White House is being very aggressive in putting out that we are taking their bait," said Joe Lockhart, a senior Kerry adviser. "What's going on now is a deliberate strategy on our part to engage in a debate on everything that's gone wrong in Iraq and hold the president accountable for a series of catastrophic mistakes."