John F. Kerry went before an audience of thousands of veterans to accuse President Bush of creating a more dangerous world by mishandling virtually every major strategic decision he has made before and after the military invasion of Iraq.
"Terrorists have secured havens in Iraq that were not there before," the Massachusetts senator said. ". . . Violence has spread in Iraq, Iran has expanded its influence, and extremism has gained momentum."
Under fire from some in his own party for failing to draw crisp and clear differences with Bush over the war in Iraq, military service and terrorism, the Democratic nominee offered one of his sharpest and most detailed explanations of how he would have handled the conflict and its aftermath differently. "When it comes to Iraq, it's not that I would have done one thing differently, I would have done almost everything differently," Kerry told the national convention of the American Legion here.
Coming off what even his aides acknowledge has been a bad month for the candidate, Kerry is scrambling to regain momentum -- sharpening his critique of Bush's policies and shaking up his communications team to be more responsive to attacks on the Democrat and his running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.).
After huddling with top staff in recent days in Nantucket, Kerry plans a more aggressive campaign style in the final two months -- starting with Wednesday's speech, aides said.
Joe Lockhart, the Clinton White House spokesman who was hired to sharpen and simplify Kerry's message, is taking a prominent, some say the preeminent, leadership role in a department largely bereft of advisers with considerable presidential-level experience. In an interview Wednesday, he promised that no attack would go unanswered.
Despite losing ground in polls, Kerry believes he has cleared the national security hurdle with most voters and plans to focus mostly on health care and the economy leading up to Nov. 2, Lockhart said. This sets the stage for the two presidential campaigns to compete on vastly different battlegrounds: Bush, staking his reelection on his ability to lead the war on terrorism; Kerry, promising more available health care and better education in exchange for higher taxes on the rich.
Kerry broke from the recent tradition of staying off the campaign trail during an opponent's political convention to speak Wednesday to the American Legion, the nation's largest veterans organization, one day after Bush addressed the same group. The president had louder and more sustained applause, but Kerry was treated politely if not enthusiastically on some points.
Beyond military service, Kerry's most aggressive case for the veterans vote centered on money. On Tuesday, the American Legion issued a statement saying Bush's proposed budget for 2004-05 falls $2.5 billion short of what the group estimates is needed to cover health programs for those who served. The Democratic nominee promised to meet, if not exceed, the American Legion's request.
Kerry said that the only aspect of the invasion on which he agreed with Bush was how swiftly and decisively the United States would win the initial war with Iraq. After that, Kerry said, Bush failed the "most solemn obligation" as commander in chief: "to make certain we had a plan to win the peace." He faulted Bush for stubbornly ignoring the advice of military commanders on the ground and politicians back home, dismissing the State Department's concerns about a postwar Iraq, and failing to secure Iraq's borders and draw in allies to relieve the burden on U.S. troops. Once inside Iraq, he said, the president botched opportunities to share responsibility with NATO or the United Nations, train indigenous Iraqi forces, safely secure prisoners of war and adequately guard nuclear waste and ammunition storage sites. Kerry said he would have not made those mistakes -- which Republicans counter is easy to say in hindsight.
The Democratic National Committee released a new ad Wednesday making a similar charge, signaling a broader effort to repair damage to Kerry's standing on national security matters.
Kerry said here that Bush now admits "he miscalculated in Iraq. In truth, his miscalculation was ignoring the advice that was given to him."
Republicans -- and some Democrats -- say Kerry has been boxed in by seemingly contradictory comments about his position on Iraq. This list includes voting to authorize the war, then criticizing it and then saying he would vote for it again; voting against spending $87 billion on the troops and reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan while criticizing Bush for shortchanging service members and suggesting he might have gone to war in Iraq if he had been president during the past four years.
Kerry's criticism extended to Afghanistan and the broader war on terrorism. He lambasted Bush for saying over the weekend that the war on terrorism is unwinnable -- a statement Bush quickly reversed. "In the end, the terrorists will lose, and we will win," Kerry said. "Because the future does not belong to fear -- it belongs to freedom."
One Kerry friend, who demanded anonymity to speak candidly, said Kerry created his own problem by making his military service the centerpiece of the Democratic National Convention in July, and then failing to defend his service when it was attacked by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Some aides advised Kerry to address concerns about his military service and his war protests during Wednesday's speech, but instead, he touted the work he has done behalf of veterans.
Members of the Swift boat veterans group are shadowing Kerry across the country and showing no signs of relenting. The group, which says it has raised nearly $3 million for anti-Kerry ads, promised to hound the candidate until he apologizes for actions during and after the Vietnam War. The group greeted Kerry with another television ad condemning his antiwar testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.
A different group, Vietnam Veterans for Truth, grabbed attention with a full-page ad in Tuesday's Tennessean faulting Kerry's actions during and the after Vietnam War. It also rented a large ballroom at the site of the convention here to distribute -- and sell -- anti-Kerry literature, books and videos. "Ain't Fonda Kerry," read one of the bumper stickers. "Kerry Lied and Good Men died," proclaimed another. Tony Snesko, one of the organizers, said more than 1,000 legionnaires have stopped by the display over the past two days. Snesko said he would close shop if Kerry "stopped the lies and apologized."
Of more concern to the Kerry campaign, first lady Laura Bush and former president George H.W. Bush said this week that the attacks on Kerry seemed like fair game. Lockhart said Kerry may respond to these charges himself in the days ahead.
While reports of a broader staff shakeup are overblown, there are many Democrats who told Kerry to elevate the role of Lockhart and Joel Johnson, another veteran of the Clinton White House who just joined the team. Kerry was also advised to reconfigure the department responsible for managing the message, arguably the most important job in politics -- dominated by round-the-clock media coverage. One Democrat said James Carville, Clinton's top strategist, is urging the campaign to bring on Paul Begala, who worked with Carville, in a senior position to help with message and strategy. Begala is a Kerry friend who already informally advises the campaign.
Several Kerry friends privately told the candidate to quit micromanaging smaller details, such as speeches, which he spends a lot of time writing and refining on the road. The Kerry campaign is getting tagged with a criticism that haunted Al Gore in 2000: It spends too much time reacting to polls and focus groups. The target of some of that criticism is Bob Shrum, who was a senior strategist for Gore.
There is disagreement inside the campaign over who is to blame for the belated response to the attacks on the Kerry's war service. Kerry has told some Democratic friends he wanted to strike back hard weeks ago, but several advisers talked him out of it because polls and focus groups showed a negative response could backfire. Yet one aide said Kerry privately conceded that he, like most of his top staff, miscalculated the impact of the attacks by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the influence of 24-hour cable news in shaping public opinion, and thought the controversy would blow over. One Kerry friend said the candidate focuses on more traditional news outlets and lacks a sophisticated understanding of modern media. "You would think he would have recognized this five years ago," the friend said.