CINCINNATI — Sen. John F. Kerry, speaking to the nation's largest combat veterans organization Wednesday, denounced President Bush's proposal to bring home troops from Europe and Asia as vague, ill-timed and risky.
In a speech heavily salted with references to his own military service, the Democratic presidential nominee said Bush's plan would not bolster the country's ability to combat terrorism nor relieve the stress on overburdened troops.
"Nobody wants to bring troops home more than those of us who have fought in foreign wars," Kerry, a former naval lieutenant, told Veterans of Foreign Wars members at the group's annual convention. "But it needs to be done at the right time and in a sensible way. This is not that time or that way."
Kerry's comments were among his strongest in distinguishing himself from Bush on national security -- which has emerged as a dominant issue in this year's presidential race.
The Massachusetts senator, dogged by criticism that he has not been specific enough about how he would handle the turmoil in Iraq differently than the incumbent, pounced on Bush's troop plan to draw a sharp distinction from the president on a key national defense issue.
"This hastily announced plan raises more doubts about our intentions and our commitment than it provides real answers," he told the VFW audience at a downtown convention hall.
"For example, why are we unilaterally withdrawing 12,000 troops from the Korean peninsula at the very time that we are negotiating with North Korea -- a country that really has nuclear weapons?" he asked.
The debate over national security could be significant for both candidates come Nov. 2. A poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that, for the first time since the Vietnam War, national security is ranked as the top concern by more Americans than economic issues. One-fourth of 2,009 adults polled in July and August rated economic matters as most important.
Bush presented his plan to withdraw as many as 70,000 U.S. troops from Europe and Asia during his speech to the VFW convention Monday, saying it would produce a more agile force in the post-Sept. 11 world, while also making life easier for military families. His campaign called Kerry's opposition naive and politically motivated.
"The Cold War is over. We must continue to transform our military to better protect the American people against the dangerous -- against the dangers of the 21st century," White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan told reporters.
Bush, meanwhile, sought to highlight his military credentials while campaigning by bus in Wisconsin and Minnesota, saying, "I have done my duty as the commander in chief to support our troops."
The differing stances by Kerry and Bush on troop redeployment help bolster both men's military credentials. Bush, who did not see combat in Vietnam but served in the Texas Air National Guard, can show his empathy for soldiers by bringing them and their families home. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, can appear tough on military issues by saying the troops need to stay abroad, while demonstrating his interest in maintaining cooperation with allies.
In his address to the VFW, Kerry reiterated his plans to expand the military by 40,000 active-duty troops and increase benefits for veterans, emphasizing his experience commanding a Swift boat in the Mekong Delta.
"Let me be clear: Like you, I've defended this country as a young man," he said in one of 16 allusions to his military service in the 34-minute speech. "And I will defend it as president of the United States."
But Kerry's effort to present a clear policy difference with Bush was potentially undercut by previous comments -- some as recent as this month -- when he voiced support for shifting some American soldiers stationed in Europe and Asia.
In an Aug. 1 interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Kerry said he believed his brand of diplomacy would allow the United States to "significantly change the deployment of troops, not just [in Iraq] but elsewhere in the world. In the Korean peninsula perhaps, in Europe perhaps."
At an April 14 news conference in New York, he was more explicit.
"The overall effort of a president right now ought to be really to try to find ways to reduce the overexposure, in a sense, of America's commitments," Kerry said then. "A proper approach to the Korean peninsula, for instance, should include the deployment of troops, the unresolved issues of the 1950s and ultimately, hopefully, could result in the reduction of American presence, ultimately."
Republicans quickly derided his latest comments.
"Kerry's attack demonstrates a backward-looking approach to the threats facing our country and a willingness to exploit any issue if he thinks he can gain from it politically," Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said.
Kerry's aides said he had always said that he supported redeployment in the long run, but that he objected to the current timing.