Sunday, December 14, 2003

The capture of Saddam Hussein was praised by the Democratic presidential candidates yesterday, but most took the opportunity to reiterate what they see as President Bush’s failed Iraqi policy or take shots at front-runner Howard Dean, who opposed the war.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, called the news “terrific,” but suggested that he could have brought Saddam to justice faster than did Mr. Bush.

“If we had done this in a globalized way, if we had brought more people to the table, we might have caught Saddam Hussein sooner,” said Mr. Kerry, one of several Democratic White House contenders who were scheduled to appear on yesterday’s political talk shows to discuss Mr. Dean’s endorsement by former Vice President Al Gore.

Republicans generally avoided public gloating, but were privately pointed in saying that Saddam’s capture put Democrats and their antiwar stance in a difficult spot.

Mr. Kerry said on “Fox News Sunday” that he stood by his characterization of Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy earlier this month as “arrogant, inept and reckless.”

Asked by host Chris Wallace whether he wanted to take any of those words back, Mr. Kerry said “not one word of it.”

Now that Saddam is in custody, Mr. Kerry said, we have “a great opportunity to get it right in the long term,” which he defined as “reaching out to the United Nations.”

Mr. Dean called yesterday “a great day for the Iraqi people, the U.S. and the international community,” but the former Vermont governor repeated Mr. Kerry’s call for more foreign and U.N. involvement.

“This development provides an enormous opportunity to set a new course and take the American label off the war,” Mr. Dean said. “We must do everything possible to bring the U.N., NATO and other members of the international community back into this effort.”

However, when Saddam’s Ba’athist regime was toppled in April, Mr. Dean said: “I suppose the Iraqis are better off with Saddam Hussein gone” and “we should’ve contained him.”

In recent months, Mr. Dean has called the liberation of Iraq “the wrong war at the wrong time,” and former Vice President Al Gore endorsed Mr. Dean last week noting that “our nation in its 200-year history has never made a worse foreign-policy mistake” than the invasion of Iraq.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and Mr. Gore’s running mate in 2000, said “praise the Lord” upon hearing of Saddam’s capture, and tartly noted Mr. Dean’s opposition to the war.

“Let’s be real specific on the question that we are celebrating today,” Mr. Lieberman said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Howard Dean, throughout this campaign, has said he wasn’t sure that Saddam really represented a threat to us. … If Howard Dean had his way, Saddam Hussein would be in power today, not prison.”

Other Democratic candidates who have been attacked by Mr. Dean for their support for the Iraq war touted Saddam’s capture as an example of their wisdom.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, noted the contrast between his position on the war and that of Mr. Dean.

“I supported this effort in Iraq without regard for the political consequences because it was the right thing to do,” Mr. Gephardt said during Fox News’ all-day coverage of the war. “I still feel that way now and today is a major step toward stabilizing Iraq and building a new democracy.”

Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, who voted for the war in Iraq but against spending $87 billion to — among other things — reconstruct the country, praised “our military leaders” for “a great success.”

“I hope President Bush will use this opportunity to chart a course in Iraq that will bring our allies in a meaningful way to achieve a democratic and peaceful Iraq,” Mr. Edwards said.

White House staff members refused to talk about the political ramifications of Saddam’s capture, but one top Republican official with close ties to the administration said the capture of Saddam fundamentally changes the 2004 presidential election.

“The Democrats have lost one of their prime issues, and with the economy rebounding and a prescription-drug plan passed by Congress and signed into law by the president, there are precious few issues left,” the official said.

Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, was willing to go on the political offensive yesterday, telling the Fox News Channel that “those Democrats who have been carping [about] and questioning” the war in Iraq “have some explaining to do.”

“Anybody who continues such partisan sniping is going to be looked upon as irrelevant in the minds of the American people,” Mr. Allen said.

Another Republican official with close ties to the White House said the timing of the capture comes as a “perfect Christmas present” for Mr. Bush.

Noting that Saddam will be tried in some forum next year — probably no earlier than summer — and Iraqis are scheduled to take over primary control of their country July 1, the picture of a stabilizing Iraq could mute Democratic criticism for much of the campaign.

“It’s hard to imagine how the timing could have been any better,” the official said.

Dick Morris, former adviser to Bill Clinton, agreed, calling the capture of Saddam “as good as the end of the recession for Bush.”

“It is a complete win of a very substantial gamble in his move into Iraq. The Democrats are left, literally, with nothing to say,” he said.

Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation, said the contrast between the Democratic candidates’ position on the war in Iraq and the image of Saddam’s capture “is going to be delicious for the Bush-Cheney campaign.”

“Voters are going to wonder if these guys have what it takes to run our foreign policy,” Mr. Franc said, predicting that the Democratic candidates will “move the goal posts” and criticize the president for a perceived lack of international involvement or the continuation of attacks on U.S. troops.

“And it turns out that we didn’t need France’s help to capture Saddam after all,” he said.

• Joseph Curl contributed to this report.

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