Last Thursday, President Bush quietly signed an authorization extending the Nunn-Lugar Act's weapons elimination effort beyond the old Soviet Union's borders, to destroy weapons of mass destruction in Albania. The president's partner in this success was Sen. Richard G. Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But isn't this the same Lugar constantly cited by Sen. John Kerry as a fierce Republican critic of Bush?

There is indeed confusion in Lugar's home state of Indiana. The 85-year-old mother of a prominent Hoosier Republican asked her son why their senator was supporting a Democrat for president and opposing the war in Iraq. Lugar actually was doing neither, but this is precisely the impression the Democrats want.

Kerry's campaign attempts to avoid the stigma of liberalism and assume a bipartisan image. In doing so, he implies support from such Republicans as Secretary of State Colin Powell, Sen. John McCain, Sen. Chuck Hagel -- and Dick Lugar. That puts Lugar in an uncomfortable position of being used by the Democratic nominee for president.

Lugar, 72 and ending his 28th year in the Senate, is no Republican heretic. Congressional Quarterly rates him as Bush's most faithful Senate supporter at 99.2 percent (with 251 out of 253 votes). The National Journal rates him tied, along with 12 other senators, as the chamber's most conservative member. He is Indiana co-chairman of the Bush reelection campaign and supports the Iraq war.

Lugar is a workhorse and not a showhorse, to use the late House Speaker Sam Rayburn's distinction. On a visit to Albania Aug. 27-28, he found 16 tons of chemical weapons imported during the 1980s by a previous gangster government. Working with the administration, he arranged for the first use of Nunn-Lugar beyond Soviet boundaries.

The order the president signed last week will give the Albanian government money and expert help to destroy the stockpile. Lugar calls this "the next step forward in preventing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons from falling into terrorist hands." Bush has told Lugar he is committed to extending this program worldwide. When Kerry sought an advantage on the nuclear proliferation issue in the first presidential debate, Bush failed to mention his breakthrough in Albania with Lugar.

Lugar's problem is one word: "incompetence." He used that word at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing when informed that only $1 billion of $18 billion appropriated for Iraqi reconstruction had been spent. Asked why on ABC's "This Week" broadcast Sept. 19, Lugar repeated his verdict: "This is the incompetence in the administration." Lugar's conclusion was correct but his wording was injudicious.

Since then, quoting Lugar as being critical of a Republican administration has become a staple of Kerry's campaign oratory. On Oct. 9, the day after the second debate, Kerry cited Lugar twice in the same speech at Elyria, Ohio ("Dick Lugar stood up and said that the delivery of [reconstruction aid] the way that it's been administered by this administration has been incompetent.")

Lugar is a gentleman of the old school, not inclined to call up Kerry and tell him to knock it off. Speaking Oct. 15 in Carmel, Ind., Lugar said it is "very, very unfortunate" that Kerry is "trying to stir up waters when we, in a very bipartisan way, on the Foreign Relations Committee support our troops." In Culver, Ind., Oct. 17, he said: "It does infuriate all my friends, and they wish that somehow or other I could seize Senator Kerry and tell him, 'Don't do it.' "

Lugar was more blunt with me last week. "The use of my remarks is an attempt to shore up a weak position on his [Kerry's] part," he told me, adding that Kerry "has tried to extend the failing of reconstruction to a more general criticism of the war."

Kerry stresses he is a colleague of Lugar on the Foreign Relations Committee, but the chairman notes that the Democratic nominee missed 22 out of 23 committee sessions on Iraq. Even before presidential campaigning kicked off after the 2002 election, Kerry was present for only 12 of 38 meetings. He co-sponsored none of the Nunn-Lugar legislation. As the classic Senate showhorse who was just waiting to run for president, perhaps he ought to give a workhorse a break and drop him from his speeches.

{copy} 2004 Creators Syndicate Inc.