- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2004

PENSACOLA, Fla. — President Bush yesterday mocked Sen. John Kerry for agreeing that Saddam Hussein should have been removed from power, even if he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Bush took obvious delight in the concession as he stumped across Florida with Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam whose service has not attracted the criticism that Mr. Kerry’s has.

“Almost two years after he voted for the war in Iraq, and almost 220 days after switching positions to declare himself the anti-war candidate, my opponent has found a new nuance,” Mr. Bush told a raucous rally here. “He now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq.

“After months of questioning my motives and even my credibility, Senator Kerry now agrees with me that even though we have not found the stockpile of weapons we all believed were there, knowing everything we know today, he would have voted to go into Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power.

“I want to thank Senator Kerry for clearing that up,” he deadpanned, drawing howls of derisive laughter. “Although, there are still 84 days left in the campaign.”

The jab came less than 24 hours after Mr. Kerry responded to the president’s challenge to declare, one way or another, whether he would have voted to give Mr. Bush the authority to wage war on Iraq “knowing what we know now.”

“I’ll answer it directly: Yes,” the Massachusetts Democrat told reporters at the Grand Canyon. “I would have voted for the authority.”

He added: “But I would have used that authority effectively.”

The concession was welcomed by the White House, which used it to reinforce its portrayal of Mr. Kerry as an overly “nuanced” flip-flopper.

“As on other issues, he has been all over the map when it comes to this one on Iraq,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters aboard Air Force One.

Seeking to limit the political damage, the Kerry campaign arranged for retired Gen. Wesley Clark to hold a conference call with reporters, including those traveling with the president.

Mr. Clark, who was vanquished by Mr. Kerry in the Democratic presidential primaries, chided Mr. Bush for “going back and looking at two-year-old votes.”

Mr. Clark also added yet another nuance to Mr. Kerry’s position by emphasizing that the candidate would have waited longer than Mr. Bush to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom.

He said Mr. Kerry would have waged war “only after we had exhausted all options,” adding that “we were a long way from” that point.

Rand Beers, Mr. Kerry’s national security adviser, tried to further clarify his boss’ position.

“The issue has never been whether we were right to hold Saddam accountable,” he said. “The issue is that we went to war without our allies, without properly equipping our troops and without a plan to win the peace.”

Susan Rice, Mr. Kerry’s chief foreign-policy adviser, told reporters: “It’s way past time for the president to stop playing games, stop asking silly questions.”

Asked by The Washington Times why Mr. Kerry would answer what he considered a “silly question,” Miss Rice did not reply.

Last night, at a rally with thousands of supporters at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Mr. Kerry continued to respond, saying he has been consistent and that it was Mr. Bush who let the country down.

“I’ve been consistent all along, ladies and gentleman,” the senator said. “I thought the United States needed to stand up to Saddam Hussein, and I voted to stand up to Saddam Hussein, but I thought we ought to do it right.”

He said that only by electing a new president can the United States gain the international support that will “get the hand out of the pocket of the American taxpayer and get our troops home.”

But Mr. McCain defended the president’s liberation of Iraq from Saddam’s tyranny.

“This president took the fight to the enemy,” he said while introducing Mr. Bush to a thunderous ovation in Pensacola. “This president went to Iraq — it is a noble and just cause.

“And believe me, America,” he added, “Iraq is a better place for having been liberated.”

Mr. McCain will continue stumping with Mr. Bush today.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report from Las Vegas.

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