On his whistle-stop swing through the West, Sen. John F. Kerry has been pulled into two issues he rarely touches on in his campaign speeches to the party faithful: his support of the Iraq war and his opposition to same-sex marriage.
Kerry, who is trying to focus on less divisive issues, such as health care, during his train trip through battleground states, was pushed into the spotlight on Iraq and same-sex marriage by President Bush, local reporters -- and a fellow Democratic senator from the swing state of Wisconsin.
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) told the Capital Times in Madison on Thursday that Kerry and his running mate Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) were "wrong" to vote for the congressional resolution authorizing the war and later against the $87 billion to fund it. His comments mark one of the few times a Democratic senator has spoken critically of the party's ticket in the general-election campaign.
They should have voted "no against an unwise war and yes to support the troops," as he did, Feingold told the newspaper.
Stephanie Cutter, Kerry's communications director, said Kerry "voted to hold [former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein] accountable and continues to believe that it was the right thing to do. After witnessing the way in which the president went to war, Senator Kerry voted against the $87 billion because it was wrong to give a blank check to the president for a failed policy."
Bush is stepping up pressure on Kerry to declare whether it was right to oust Hussein, despite the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman, said the president would not only have still ousted Hussein, but not adjusted the strategy or timing of the military strike. "Unequivocal answer: [Bush] would have removed Saddam when we did," Schmidt wrote via e-mail.
Knowing then what he knows today about the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Kerry still would have voted to authorize the war and "in all probability" would have launched a military attack to oust Hussein by now if he were president, Kerry national security adviser Jamie Rubin said in an interview Saturday. As recently as Friday, the Massachusetts senator had said he only "might" have still gone to war.
Kerry and Rubin also are detailing a new Iraq policy to "significantly" reduce the number of U.S. troops in Iraq during the first six months of a Kerry administration. In an NPR interview Friday, Kerry said: "I believe that within a year from now, we could significantly reduce American forces in Iraq, and that's my plan." His comments took several aides by surprise. Until the interview, Kerry's stated policy was to significantly reduce troops by the end of his first term.
Rubin said Kerry could accomplish the new goal "because of the new credibility we would bring to the White House, because leaders would see cooperation with the United States as a plus rather than a minus. . . . We will be in a better position to get help in terms of troops and money."
There are 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, but Kerry is not setting any firm targets for the proposed reduction. The reduction would be possible by encouraging other nations to participate more in Iraq and by training more Iraqi forces to take over for American troops, Rubin said.
Campaigning in Missouri this week, Kerry did not include a reference to the state's vote to ban same-sex marriage in his speeches. But he told the Kansas City Star he would have voted for the ban, which is similar to one he supported in Massachusetts, and he reiterated his opposition to same-sex marriage in a local television interview. "We always argued the states will be capable of taking care of this by themselves," Kerry told the NBC affiliate in Kansas City.
Here in southwestern Colorado on Saturday, it was retail politics for Kerry. Under a sweltering afternoon sun, he outlined for a crowd his plan on health care reform, an issue many onlookers said was crucial in deciding how they would vote.
"Under our [health care] plan, we cut the waste, the greed, the fraud and the abuse," he told the crowd. "In our America, we are going to stop being the only industrial country on the face of the whole planet that doesn't yet understand that health care is not a privilege for the wealthy, the elected and the connected. It is a right for all Americans."
Theresa Carrillo, 55, a social worker from nearby Pueblo, said Kerry's pledges on health care struck a chord.
"Our country has been going downhill under Bush," she said. "It's time for a change, a fairer approach to issues like health care."
Kerry also drew rousing cheers when he condemned the fallout from the war on Iraq.
"Too many of our young kids in uniform are at greater risk today than they needed to be. Too many of our young people today and American taxpayers are bearing the burden of Iraq almost alone because this president rushed to war without a plan to win the peace," he said.