With Eye On 2008, Kerry Goes After Bush

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 15, 2006

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) barely said hello to the New Hampshire Democrats who filled a banquet room here Friday night before unloading on President Bush.

"This war in Iraq is a disgrace," he said in the second sentence of his speech at a party fundraising dinner.

Thirty-two minutes and 14 standing ovations later, the man who lost the 2004 presidential campaign left little doubt that if he runs again in 2008, he intends to be the chief prosecutor of the record of the Bush presidency.

"A lie, a lie, a lie and a lie," he said after recounting Republican claims that Iraq is not in a civil war, that North Korea's nuclear advancement is former president Bill Clinton's fault and that Democrats were behind the release of salacious e-mails that Mark Foley sent to former House pages.

It was as if the Kerry of 2006 was channeling the Howard Dean of 2003. "What we have in Washington is a house of lies, and in November, we need to clean house," he said.

Kerry spoke to an audience that included many of the activists who helped propel him to the nomination two years ago. But after Bush's victory, many of them are decidedly cooler to a Kerry presidential campaign in 2008.

The University of New Hampshire released a survey Thursday of presidential preferences in the Granite State. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) led the field of Democrats with 30 percent, followed by former senator John Edwards (N.C.) at 16 percent and former vice president Al Gore at 10 percent. Kerry ranked fourth with 9 percent.

None of this seems to discourage the Massachusetts senator. He said he has been getting a far different sense from conversations with Democrats during his travels this fall. "I'm very encouraged," he said in an interview a few hours before his speech. "I know what the conventional wisdom is, and it's had a good record of being wrong."

Kerry believes he was defeated in 2004 in large part because of what he calls two lies from his opponents: one about the way America went to war in 2003, the other far more personal -- the Swift Boat veterans' attacks that challenged his Vietnam War record, crippling his campaign in August 2004.

Democrats still fault Kerry for failing to fight back against those charges, and he says he regrets that he was not more aggressive. "We thought the truth was understood," he said. "We should have done more." But, Kerry added: "I don't think that should disqualify you from being president of the United States, necessarily."

What is disqualifying, he believes, is the Bush administration's Iraq strategy. "This war is utterly disastrous," he said. "It's without parallel in modern American foreign policy history in the incompetence and in the lack of effort to bring elders of both parties together and create an atmosphere of solving it. And I am incensed that young Americans are losing their lives because these guys are arrogant and incompetent."

Those kinds of comments have drawn instant rebukes from critics in the Republican Party, and even Democrats have been reluctant to follow Kerry's recommendations for changing policy by setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces. He predicts that more of his colleagues in the Senate will move his way after the midterm elections.

Kerry said those who have encouraged him to run again believe he can be a viable candidate. "Are there enough people who believe that?" he asked. "Can we put that together? Have I learned the lessons of getting kicked on my butt and dusted up, and can I bring a better experience to the table? I think I've learned a lot of lessons. The question is, can you convey that to people? I don't know. Those are the imponderables."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company