- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2003

Two of the Democratic presidential candidates and the party’s Senate leader suddenly are abandoning or softening their criticism of the Iraq war in a move to strengthen their national security postures in the 2004 elections.With the approval percentage for President Bush’s handling of the war against terrorism and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime soaring into the high 70s, some of his fiercest war critics have flip-flopped or revised their positions.Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota, who has denounced Mr. Bush for failing “miserably” to find a diplomatic solution to avoid a war with Iraq, gives the president “great credit” for his leadership in winning the war.Abandoning his harsh antiwar rhetoric, Mr. Daschle, who faces re-election next year in a state where Mr. Bush is popular, calls the war necessary and justified.”I don’t think there’s any more justification required than what we’ve already seen in terms of the purpose of the military operations. Regime change was a legitimate goal, was accomplished, and I think that’s laudable in and of its own right,” he said late last week in a conference call with reporters in his home state.Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, whose vociferous opposition to the war has lifted him into the top tier of Democratic presidential contenders in New Hampshire, also has changed his tune.For many months, he said Iraq was “the wrong war at the wrong time” and more recently doubted whether the Iraqi people were better off with Saddam gone.One week after campaign officials for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, his chief rival, attacked him as unfit to be commander in chief, Mr. Dean dropped his fierce antiwar rhetoric and said he was “delighted to see Saddam Hussein gone.”Even Mr. Kerry, who voted for the congressional war resolution but repeatedly criticized Mr. Bush for not gathering more international support, made subtle shifts in his position. Mr. Dean was running neck and neck with Mr. Kerry in New Hampshire, and the senator’s strategists were looking for a way to undercut Mr. Dean’s surge in the polls.To toughen his image on national security, Mr. Kerry had his chief spokesman, Chris Lehane, attack Mr. Dean for suggesting that the United States would not always be the strongest military power in the world.”The dilemma they have is that there is an energetic and large element in the Democratic Party that remains against the war. But the vast majority of voters, including many Democrats, support and appreciate the skill with which it was executed and the firmness of the president in deciding what to do,” said Republican strategist Ed Gillespie.”Bush had the foresight to do what is necessary in the war with Iraq, and now you have those who want to challenge him belatedly and begrudgingly follow him to that same conclusion,” he said.The consensus among debate watchers was that Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, who was one of the president’s most loyal backers in the war, came across as the strongest candidate in Saturday’s forum in Columbia, S.C.He sternly lectured Mr. Kerry and Mr. Dean for their criticism of the war and accused the senator of taking an “ambivalent” position on the conflict that “sent the wrong message from our party.”“No Democrat will be elected president in 2004 who is not strong on defense, and this war was a test of that strength,” Mr. Lieberman said.Mr. Kerry insisted that “there’s no ambivalence” in his position on the war, but the Lieberman campaign sent out a newspaper clip to reporters after the debate that quoted Mr. Lehane saying, “The country is clearly ambivalent about Iraq. Kerry has been exactly where the country is.”“Some of these guys are beginning to contradict their contradictions. At some point, it becomes extremely difficult to discern exactly what they stand for,” said Jim Dyke, chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

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