Monday, June 7, 2004

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry spent the past week hawking a tough national-security image to convince voters that he can be trusted to aggressively fight the war on terrorism, calling it the “greatest threat” facing America today.

But less than six months ago, the Massachusetts senator said in a televised debate that the Bush administration had exaggerated the threat posed by terrorism.

“I think there’s been an exaggeration,” Mr. Kerry said in January when asked whether he agreed with most Europeans that President Bush “has exaggerated the threat of terrorism.”

“There needs to be a refocusing,” Mr. Kerry said.

In the current political battle, in which national security appears to play a considerable role, Mr. Kerry is singing a decidedly different tune from his primary days, promising to fight a tougher and smarter war against terrorists than Mr. Bush has.

The Kerry campaign did not explain the apparent discrepancies in his positions, except to say that his current position is the one he’s sticking with.

“John Kerry spent this week talking about the security challenges before our nation, and what we need to do to make our nation stronger and safer,” campaign spokesman Chad Clanton said. “These terrorist threats are very real, and more must be done to address them.”

Mr. Kerry called the prospect of a nuclear attack by terrorists “the greatest threat we face today.”

“The question before us now is what shadowy figures may someday have their finger on a nuclear button if we don’t act,” he said in one of a series of speeches in which he accused Mr. Bush of not taking the threat of terrorism seriously enough.

In that same speech, he vowed to round up all the unguarded nuclear material in the world within four years, mainly through negotiations. In another speech, Mr. Kerry promised to name a national coordinator to combat bioterrorism.

He also said he would expand the standing army by 40,000 troops — at no additional cost to taxpayers — to fight terrorism. Yet, he had insisted during much of the primary that the fight against terrorists was primarily a police action rather than a military operation.

Last month, after Attorney General John Ashcroft warned of terrorist attacks this summer, Mr. Kerry took a hard line on terrorism.

“We were again reminded that we do live in dangerous times,” he said.

During a January debate in Greenville, S.C., moderator Tom Brokaw asked Mr. Kerry to explain his assertion by asking, “Where has the exaggeration been in the threat on terrorism?”

Mr. Kerry listed several areas of exaggeration for the crowd of Democrats, including “nuclear weapons.”

“They are really misleading all of America, Tom, in a profound way,” Mr. Kerry responded.

He went on to say that the war on terror is “occasionally military,” but that “it’s primarily an intelligence and law-enforcement operation that requires cooperation around the world, the very thing this administration is worst at.”

Among those struck by Mr. Kerry’s assertion was Sen. John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat who went on to win the South Carolina primary and become Mr. Kerry’s toughest primary opponent.

After answering an unrelated question, Mr. Edwards asked to return to the earlier question.

“It’s hard for me to see how you can say there’s an exaggeration when thousands of people lost their lives on September 11,” said Mr. Edwards, who makes most short lists of potential running mates for Mr. Kerry.

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