Monday, February 23, 2004

Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry has opposed some of the most effective — and publicly popular — military weapons in the U.S. arsenal during the past 15 years.

The Massachusetts senator voted against defense appropriations bills that included money for weapons such as the Patriot missile, the Tomahawk cruise missile and the B-2 stealth bomber — all of which military leaders say have become integral to the U.S. force and were crucial to winning the 1991 Gulf war and last year’s war in Iraq.

According to voting records, Mr. Kerry also favored cutting or canceling spending on the Apache helicopter, the M-1 Abrams tank and a wide range of fighter jets.

A skirmish over the issue broke out this weekend between Mr. Kerry and President Bush, with supporters of Mr. Bush accusing Mr. Kerry of being “weak on defense.” In a letter to Mr. Bush, Mr. Kerry wrote that he didn’t want the “debate to be distorted through your $100 million campaign fund” and challenged the president to a face-to-face debate.

“That’s the game they play,” Mr. Kerry told reporters yesterday while campaigning in New York. “They haven’t come to you and said we need this [weapons] system and John Kerry voted against the system. They’re saying he voted against defense … and I’m not going to let them nickel-and-dime us on one system or another that was an individual vote.”

But for the most part, Mr. Kerry has failed to address many of his Senate votes on defense and intelligence matters.

“If he wants to be commander in chief, he has to answer these questions,” Mr. Bush’s campaign chairman, Marc Racicot, said yesterday.

Mr. Racicot also said Mr. Kerry is trying to “cloud the issue” by complaining that Republicans are attacking his patriotism rather than his votes on defense issues in the Senate.

“We have praised repeatedly Senator Kerry’s service in Vietnam,” Mr. Racicot said. “This is not a discussion about anything other than his record.”

Mr. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran who became a war protester, did defend some of his record yesterday, saying he had voted for the biggest Pentagon and intelligence budgets in U.S. history but had also challenged President Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defense as well as some weapons systems such as the MX missile.

The Center for Security Policy has analyzed more than 75 votes over the past decade cast by Mr. Kerry and other senators. The Washington-based conservative think tank gave Mr. Kerry one of the lowest ratings of any senator.

In 1995, for instance, the group gave Mr. Kerry a rank of five out of a possible 100. In 1997, Mr. Kerry earned a zero from the Center for Security Policy, which identifies its goal as “promoting international peace through American strength.”

Among the votes the group evaluated were nine Mr. Kerry cast against developing a missile-defense system envisioned to protect the United States from nuclear attack. Also noted are the six times in the past 10 years he voted to freeze or reduce defense spending. Mr. Kerry also cast two votes to loosen trade controls over “dual-use” technology such as U.S.-made high-speed computers that can also be used by enemies to build high-tech weaponry.

Over the weekend, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, said during this time of terrorist alerts at home and suicide bombings overseas, it’s an issue sure to make a difference for voters.

“When you have a 32-year history of voting to cut defense programs and cut defense systems, folks in Georgia are going to look beyond what he says and look at his voting record,” Mr. Chambliss said in a conference call with reporters arranged by Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign.

Mr. Kerry responded during a campaign stop this weekend in Georgia, where Democratic voters will vote in a primary next week.

“I’d like to know what it is Republicans who didn’t serve in Vietnam have against those of us who did,” he said in reference to Mr. Bush’s stateside service in the Texas Air National Guard during the war.

Republicans have also produced a proposed bill that Mr. Kerry authored in 1996 to cut the deficit. The proposal, which would have cut spending on defense and intelligence by $6.5 billion, never attracted a co-sponsor or came to a vote.

“This bill was so reckless that it had no co-sponsors,” said Mr. Racicot.

Mr. Kerry yesterday said embracing every weapons system proposed doesn’t make Republicans stronger on defense.

“That’s not the measure of whether you’re strong on defense,” he said.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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