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Thu, Aug. 22

Kerry's earlier vote on war haunts him

DAVENPORT, Iowa – John Kerry is standing in front of a big, enthusiastic Democratic crowd at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds, and he is enjoying the chance to pummel George W. Bush.

"He said he wants to send Americans to Mars, and I've got a better idea," he says with a mischievous smile. The crowd roars, expecting the obvious punch line. "No, that's not what I'm thinking. I'm thinking, why can't he find a way to bring Americans back from Iraq?"

Iraq and other defense issues are among the top campaign priorities of the Massachusetts senator, and he is pounding on them today. "We shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad while we're shutting them in the United States," says Kerry, a Vietnam veteran. "If George Bush wants national security to be the centerpiece of this campaign, I have three words for him that I know he understands: Bring it on!"

In many ways, Kerry is the perfect Democrat to make the case against Bush's handling of our biggest foreign policy crisis. As a Navy lieutenant, he earned multiple decorations for his actions under fire. In one ambush, Kerry spurned retreat and veered toward the attacker, beaching his boat and personally shooting a Vietcong guerrilla. His gamble saved his crew but caused a superior to say, half in jest, that he didn't know whether Kerry should be given a medal or a court-martial – before recommending him for a Silver Star.

His record gave him special stature as an opponent of the war. As a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kerry helped organize a protest in Washington in 1971 and went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to pose an unforgettable question: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"

One could ask that same question today about Iraq, and Kerry is ideally positioned to ask it. Except for one thing: He supported the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use military force against Saddam Hussein.

So Democrats looking for an antiwar candidate had to look elsewhere, and they alighted on Howard Dean. Had Kerry been willing to stand firmly against the war from the start, Dean might now be contemplating the pleasures of practicing medicine full time.

That's why Kerry makes such a point of criticizing the administration for what it's done in Iraq. A voter who attended rallies for the two candidates, in fact, might conclude that Kerry was the chief critic of the war.

Dean, having established his bona fides on Iraq, doesn't belabor the subject. Instead, he declares his support for a strong military and the unapologetic use of American power where necessary. He regularly notes that he supported the first Gulf war and the invasion of Afghanistan, and he opposes any cut in the defense budget.

Now, Kerry is left to explain why he didn't vote against the war when he had the chance, while legions flock to Dean in anger over Iraq. Opposing the war early was a huge risk. But Dean has confirmed what Lt. Kerry discovered in Vietnam: Fortune favors the bold.

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