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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Kerry Gets Mixed Reception From Veterans

American Legion members' enthusiasm wanes when Democrat criticizes Bush's handling of the war in Iraq and its aftermath.

September 02, 2004|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NASHVILLE — In one of his most pointed critiques of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, Sen. John F. Kerry on Wednesday cataloged what he called a series of missteps in postwar planning that have allowed terrorism to flourish.

Speaking to thousands of American Legion members gathered in Nashville for their annual convention, the Democratic presidential candidate cited decisions by the "civilian leadership" that he said had left Iraqi security forces unprepared for their new tasks, the country's borders insecure and its weapons unattended.

"Terrorists have secured havens in Iraq that were not there before," said Kerry, standing onstage in a cavernous hotel ballroom. "And we have been forced to reach accommodation with those who have repeatedly attacked our troops. Violence has spread in Iraq, Iran has expanded its influence and extremism has gained momentum."

Although many of the American Legion delegates enthusiastically applauded remarks Kerry made earlier in his speech about the need for better veterans benefits, his criticism of the administration's foreign policy was received coolly and the audience was silent as he detailed his view of what has gone wrong in Iraq.

"Now, I know that some of these things are hard to listen to," the candidate said, breaking from his prepared remarks to acknowledge the silence. "But I think the president himself ... admitted that he miscalculated in Iraq," Kerry added, referring to a remark Bush made in a New York Times interview. "In truth, his miscalculation was ignoring the advice that was given to him, including the best advice of America's own military."

With his address, the Massachusetts senator tried to regain traction after a rough month in which he fielded denunciations of his war record and saw his standing in some polls decline.

Some Democratic activists have grown increasingly concerned about Kerry's campaign, with several publicly urging him to shift gears and some privately suggesting that he shake up his staff.

"We haven't taken the gloves off yet," said Roger Wilson, the state Democratic Party chairman in Missouri and a former lieutenant governor. "We're letting them define someone who served honorably in Vietnam when the records of our incumbent president can't even be found. What's that all about?"

Kerry's aides have dismissed reports of internal upheaval. "The marathon is about to turn into a sprint, and we have a team that's ready to take on the Bush attack machine and win," spokesman David Wade said.

Still, the campaign recently brought in two Clinton White House veterans to reshape the communications shop and is considering adding even more help, Democratic sources said.

The speech Wednesday was Kerry's only public appearance during the Republican convention, and he used it to highlight his differences with the president on Iraq. Kerry often has struggled to articulate his stance on Iraq. In early August, he puzzled allies by saying that he still would have voted to give Bush authority to invade the country even if he had known there were no weapons of mass destruction.

In his 40-minute address, the senator laid out a series of mistakes he said the administration had made, charging that it was unprepared for the insurgency that exploded after the collapse of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime.

Kerry said he would have allowed United Nations inspections to continue in order to build international consensus, developed a better plan to secure a postwar Iraq and built a broad coalition of allies before invading.

"So, when the president says we have the same position on Iraq, I have to respectfully disagree," he said.

The Bush campaign scoffed at Kerry's claim, noting that the senator voted against a supplemental budget to provide $87 billion to help fund operations and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Kerry sought to spotlight Bush's own reversal this week, in which the president first said in a TV interview that the war on terrorism could not be won and then, in Bush's address to the American Legion on Tuesday, insisted it would be won.

"I absolutely disagree with what he said in that interview in a moment of candor," Kerry said. "With the right policies, this is a war we can win, this is a war we must win, and this is a war we will win."

The mixed reception Kerry received at the American Legion, a service organization with 3 million members, underscored in part the doubts that have been sown about the former Navy lieutenant by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that has run commercials sharply attacking his military service and subsequent antiwar protests.

Charles Rummel, a Korean War veteran and registered Democrat, said that although he was impressed by Kerry's speech, he was concerned about the group's claims that Kerry did not deserve his Purple Hearts.

"That put a question in my mind," said Rummel, 77, of Ocean City, Md.

Still, Rummel said he agreed with much of Kerry's criticism of the administration's postwar strategy in Iraq.

"We've got to bring our troops back," Rummel said. "There are too many of them getting killed over there. If they would have had a plan, maybe we wouldn't need to be over there still."

Meanwhile, Kerry's allies reacted angrily to remarks Bush political advisor Karl Rove made in an interview Wednesday with Associated Press in which he said that the Democratic candidate tarnished "the records and service" of veterans with his anti-war testimony in 1971.

In a conference call arranged by Kerry's campaign, former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, both Vietnam War veterans and Democrats, accused Rove of "a smear campaign" and demanded that he resign.

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Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak and Peter Wallsten in New York contributed to this report.

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