EUGENE, Ore.—Firing sound bites at each other across several time zones, President Bush and Democratic nominee John Kerry engaged last week in an extraordinary drive-by debate on the Iraq war.
The sharp exchanges were unusually intense for August of an election year, and they foreshadowed what's likely to be a protracted fight through Nov. 2 on what's emerged as the campaign's central issue. Notably, unlike many Democrats taking refuge in the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Kerry isn't saying his stand on Iraq was the result of Bush having misled him, but his relatively pro-war stance apparently isn't raising audible objections from his antiwar supporters.
Bush kicked off the renewed debate on Aug. 6 in New Hampshire, when he declared that the world was better off without Saddam Hussein and challenged Kerry to clear up his own position, as if he were across a stage in a debate hall.
"My opponent hasn't answered whether, knowing what we know now, he would have supported going into Iraq," Bush said. "That's an important question and the American people deserve a clear yes-or-no answer."
Kerry answered Bush three days later from the rim of the Grand Canyon. "Yes, I would have voted for the authority," he said. "I believe it was the right authority for a president to have, but I would have used that authority, as I have said throughout the campaign, effectively."
Then Kerry upped the stakes, saying he could significantly reduce U.S. troops in Iraq by August 2005 and asking four questions of Bush: "Why did he mislead America" about how he would prosecute the war? Why did he fail to plan for the post-invasion period? Why did he rely on faulty intelligence about Saddam's weapons capabilities? And why did he fail to bring in more allies?
The next day in Pensacola, Fla., Bush kept the focus on the Senate's vote to authorize the war to mock Kerry. "Now almost two years after he voted for the war in Iraq and 200 days after switching positions to declare himself the antiwar candidate, my opponent has found a new nuance," Bush said. "Thanks for clearing that up, Senator Kerry."
Tuesday night at a raucous rally at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, Kerry denied any inconsistency in his position and offered his clearest explanation yet of his vote to give Bush authority to attack.
"I thought the United States needed to stand up to Saddam Hussein, and I voted to stand up to Saddam Hussein," Kerry told the crowd of more than 10,000. "But I thought we ought to do it right. I thought we ought to reach out to other countries and that we ought to build an international coalition."
Kerry said the solution Iraq requires now is to start fresh with a new U.S. administration that can bring other nations into the rebuilding process.
"We need the statesmanship," Kerry said. "We need the patience. We need the maturity. We need the leadership. We need a new state of credibility that allows us to sit down with people who have always been our allies, who also have a stake in the outcome. We need to bring them to the table, get the target off American troops, get the hand out of the pocket of the American taxpayer and get our troops home."
Popping up in New Mexico 24 hours later, Bush took aim at Kerry's evolving promise to withdraw troops from Iraq, saying that strengthens the insurgents. In an interview with Knight Ridder just after the Democratic convention, Kerry said he could substantially reduce troops by the end of his four-year term, then a week later told National Public Radio that he could do it within six months of inauguration.
Both sides have strategic incentives to keep hashing over the decisions that led to war.
Polls taken after the Democratic convention showed that Kerry, who turned the event into a four-day infomercial about his Vietnam service, had gained ground on Bush on the question of who's better able to wage the war on terrorism and serve as commander in chief. That's the president's greatest political strength, polls show, and Kerry was eroding it.
Bush aides needed to knock down Kerry's gains, while using Kerry's evolving explanations of his position on Iraq to emphasize one of their main themes: that Kerry lacks core convictions.
The war has caused political problems for Kerry from the beginning of his campaign. He voted in October 2002 to give the president authority to use military force against Saddam, but the next year he voted "no" on an $87 billion appropriation to fund the occupation.
Kerry said the second vote was a protest against the precipitous way Bush went to war, but Republicans—and some Democrats—say Kerry was tacking into political winds. At the time, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was leading the race for the Democratic nomination with a passionate anti-war message, and Kerry's campaign was struggling.
The sizable antiwar wing of the Democratic Party has never quite trusted Kerry on the issue, though most have swallowed their concerns out of a desire to beat Bush.
As Kerry tried to change the subject to the economy Thursday, Vice President Dick Cheney went to Dayton, Ohio, to rip him for pledging to wage a more "sensitive" war on terrorism, remarks Kerry made Aug. 5 at a convention of minority journalists. Kerry had pledged to wage a smarter, more strategic, and—yes—more sensitive war.
"Those who threaten us and kill innocents around the world do not need to be treated more sensitively," Cheney said. "They need to be destroyed."
Kerry fired back Thursday night at a rally in Republican-leaning southwest Oregon.
"I defended this country as a young man," he said, "when others chose not to." Cheney received several draft deferments during Vietnam, and Bush served stateside in the Texas Air National Guard.
A sampling of opinion from people at Kerry's Oregon rally revealed no criticism of his evolving stand on Iraq.
"I think he's a diplomat, a person who realizes it's OK based on new information to change his mind," said Karen Myers, 56, a retired teacher from Eugene. "Stubbornness is not a virtue." She wants the troops home as soon as possible and trusts Kerry to do it. "I'm not one in the know, but he'll do it as fast as he can," Myers said. "He's been to war, and he knows what it is like."
Georgia Barton, 65, said she didn't think the Iraq invasion was justified because Iraq hadn't attacked the United States, but she's convinced Kerry wouldn't have gone to war.
"Kerry would have listened to the rest of the world," Barton said.
(Fitzgerald, who reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer, covers the Kerry campaign for Knight Ridder.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.