John F. Kerry pledged Sunday he would substantially reduce U.S. troop strength in Iraq by the end of his first term in office but declined to offer any details of what he said is his plan to attract significantly more allied military and financial support there.
In interviews on television talk shows, the Democratic presidential nominee said that he saw no reason to send more troops to Iraq and that he would seek allied support to draw down U.S. forces there. "I will have significant, enormous reduction in the level of troops," he said on ABC's "This Week."
Kerry accused President Bush of misleading the country before the war in Iraq, burning bridges with U.S. allies and having no plan to win peace. But when questioned about saying Thursday in his acceptance speech, "I know what we have to do in Iraq," he would not tip his hand.
"I've been involved in this for a long time, longer than George Bush," he said. "I've spent 20 years negotiating, working, fighting for different kinds of treaties and different relationships around the world. I know that as president there's huge leverage that will be available to me, enormous cards to play, and I'm not going to play them in public. I'm not going to play them before I'm president."
Reminded that he sounded like Richard M. Nixon, who campaigned in 1968 by saying he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam, Kerry responded: "I don't care what it sounds like. The fact is that I'm not going to negotiate in public today without the presidency, without the power."
Kerry previously has discussed his desire to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq but declined to attach any timetable to that goal. He spoke more extensively about Iraq after his acceptance speech, suggesting he has an exit strategy.
Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, gave interviews to four Sunday news programs on Saturday afternoon between stops on their two-week, coast-to-coast bus and train trip. The candidates were rolling again Sunday, starting the day in Columbus, Ohio, attending church in nearby Springfield, holding a rally in Bowling Green and later participating in a softball game and picnic in Taylor, Mich.
As the long caravan headed north on Interstate 75 through western Ohio on Sunday, Kerry and Edwards occasionally slowed the buses to acknowledge groups of supporters lined up along the road, holding signs and waving U.S. flags. Kerry and Edwards continued to draw sizable and enthusiastic crowds, with an estimated 8,000 people here on a hot and sunny afternoon.
Bill May, 61, a registered Republican and military veteran who voted for Bush, said he probably will vote for Kerry in November. "It's time for a change," May said, "and I don't think Bush can do what needs to be done in Iraq."
Keith Kreager, 56, a veteran and Democrat who voted for Ronald Reagan, said he supports Kerry. "The president is indecisive," Kreager said. "He went after the wrong person. Instead of Osama, he attacked Saddam, when he's been a threat for years and there wasn't anything there."
A new poll showed that Kerry had received no real bounce in the polls from last week's Democratic National Convention in Boston. A CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll showed that among likely voters, Bush led Kerry by 50 percent to 46 percent, with independent Ralph Nader at 2 percent. In a pre-convention poll, Kerry led Bush 47 to 46 percent. Among registered voters, Kerry and Bush were tied. It is unusual for a candidate not to gain ground from his convention.
Kerry's assertion in his acceptance speech that he has an exit strategy for Iraq drew repeated questions from the four television hosts. The Massachusetts senator said the administration had failed diplomatically, and he asserted that a change in presidents would produce more international support for the United States in Iraq.
"I think that a fresh start changes the equation . . . for leaders in other countries who have great difficulty right now associating themselves with our policy and with the United States because of the way this administration has burned those bridges," Kerry said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Kerry defended his and Edwards's votes against an $87 billion authorization for military and reconstruction costs in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the Bush campaign has used repeatedly to question Kerry's commitment to U.S. forces. Kerry said he learned in Vietnam that presidents should not get a blank check for policies that do not work.
"We voted to change the policy," he said on CNN's "Late Edition." "We voted in order to get it right."
Kerry supported an amendment that would have paid for the $87 billion by reducing some of Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. The amendment did not require significant policy changes.
Kerry and Edwards were interviewed before Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge raised the terror alert level on five buildings and the financial sector in Washington, New York and part of New Jersey. But he criticized the president for failing earlier to take steps to improve homeland security recommended by the bipartisan commission that investigated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I think this administration has dropped the ball on homeland security," he said on "Fox News Sunday."
"I think they are now moving to catch up. But what America wants is leadership that's ahead of the curve," he said.
On domestic issues, Kerry gave a "rock hard" pledge not to raise middle-class taxes if he becomes president, though he said a national emergency or war could change that.
Reminded that the country is at war already, Kerry said, "We're going to reduce the burden in this war, and if we do what we need to do for our economy, we're going to grow the tax base of our country."