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Rove Revels in Democrat Kerry's Lead

By Bob Woodward
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2004

This article was adapted from "Plan of Attack," a book by Bob Woodward that is a behind-the-scenes account of how and why President Bush decided to go to war against Iraq. Simon & Schuster. © 2004.

By early February 2004, White House political adviser Karl Rove could see that Iraq was turning into a potential negative. The violence on the ground continued. The U.S. military had more than 100,000 troops there and would require that many or more for some time. American soldiers were being killed at too high a rate, and the administration hadn't reached a political settlement. Turning the government over to the Iraqis looked shaky. The failure to find any weapons of mass destruction, and President Bush's and CIA Director George J. Tenet's public acknowledgments that the intelligence might have been wrong, were potentially big setbacks.

Previously, Rove had claimed he was salivating that the Democrats would nominate former Vermont governor Howard Dean in the 2004 presidential race. But Dean had imploded and Sen. John F. Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, had won 12 of the first 14 Democratic primary contests and appeared to be headed for the nomination. Politics is a game of recovery, adaptability and optimism. So Rove had a new line.

"The good news for us is that Dean is not the nominee," Rove now argued to an associate in his second-floor West Wing office. Dean's unconditional opposition to the Iraq war could have been potent in a face-off with Bush. "One of Dean's strengths, though, was he could say, I'm not part of that crowd down there." But Kerry was very much a part of the Washington crowd, and he had voted in favor of the resolution for war. Rove got out his two-inch-thick, loose-leaf binder titled "Bring It On." It consisted of research into Kerry's 19-year record in the Senate. Most relevant were pages 9 to 20 of the section on Iraq.

The record was that Kerry had been all over the map. Sounding like a method actor who believes his lines, Rove offered some readings from the Kerry record.

"Iraq has developed a chemical weapons capability," Rove quoted Kerry saying in October 1990, according to the Congressional Record. Saddam Hussein has been "working toward" development of weapons of mass destruction or "had all those abilities," Kerry had said in January 1991. (Of course, this turned out to be true, as the U.N. weapons inspectors discovered after the 1991 Persian Gulf War.) In 1998, as a member of the intelligence committee, Kerry said that Hussein was "pursuing a program to build weapons of mass destruction," and in October 2002, he said, "I am prepared to hold Saddam Hussein accountable and destroy his weapons of mass destruction." And, "The threat of Saddam Hussein with weapons of mass destruction is real. . . . He has continued to build those weapons."

Rove's eyebrows were jumping up and down as he read. "My personal favorite," he said, quoting Kerry on March 19, 2003, the day the war started: "I think Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction are a threat, and that's why I voted to hold him accountable and to make certain that we disarm him."

"Oh, yeah!" Rove shouted. And that had been on National Public Radio! He had it all on tape. So here is a member of the Senate intelligence committee saying that Hussein had the stuff. And the Bush campaign argument would be as follows: "You're looking at the same intelligence the president is and arriving at the same conclusion, and if you accuse him of misleading the American people, what were you doing? Are you saying, I was duped?"

Of course, when the aftermath of the war turned sour, Rove noted, Kerry started backing away, arguing that he had voted not for war but only to give the president the power to threaten war. More starkly, Kerry had said on "Meet the Press" in August 2003 that the congressional resolution "we passed did not empower the president to do regime change; we empowered him only with respect to the relevant resolutions of the United Nations."

Well, Rove and the rest of the country knew that the resolution clearly gave the president approval to use the military in Iraq.

Rove was gleeful. "It's on tape!" he said, "and we've done testing on it, and you put out there, literally you take the footage of him saying some of this stuff and then have him in the exchange with Chris Matthews saying I'm antiwar and people say, 'What a hypocrite!' "

Kerry would have, and did have, answers. His main response was that Bush did not press hard enough or long enough with the United Nations, that he did not build a legitimate global coalition, that he did not plan for the aftermath, and was too eager to go to war when Hussein was isolated and weak.

But Rove believed they had Kerry pretty cold on voting to give the president a green light for war and then backing off when he didn't like the aftermath or saw a political opportunity.

Whatever the case, Rove sounded as if he believed they could inoculate the president on the Iraq war in a campaign against Kerry. It remained to be seen, but Rove was certainly going to try.

Mark Malseed contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company