Thursday, March 18, 2004

Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry yesterday renounced all endorsements of foreign leaders, after his campaign faced questions this week over his claim that world leaders told him face to face they want him to defeat President Bush.

“This election will be decided by the American people, and the American people alone,” said Mr. Kerry’s foreign policy adviser, Rand Beers. “It is simply not appropriate for any foreign leader to endorse a candidate in America’s presidential election.

“John Kerry does not seek, and will not accept, any such endorsements.”

Mr. Kerry’s campaign, which has been knocked off message as Republicans, including Mr. Bush, have demanded that Mr. Kerry either prove his statement or quit talking about it, issued Mr. Beers’ comments when the former prime minister of Malaysia endorsed the Massachusetts senator in an Associated Press interview.

“John Kerry rejects any association with former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, an avowed anti-Semite whose views are totally deplorable,” Mr. Beers said. On Wednesday, Spain’s prime minister-elect urged Americans to vote for Mr. Kerry during an interview on Spanish radio.

Mr. Beers’ comments echoed what Vice President Dick Cheney said Wednesday, “American voters are the ones charged with determining the outcome of this election, not unnamed foreign leaders,” and that the president’s job is to protect America’s interests.

The entire issue, which stems from Mr. Kerry’s assertion last week at a Florida fund-raiser that leaders told him privately that they hope he defeats Mr. Bush, has derailed what had been a good month for the senator. He repeatedly has refused to back up his assertion, even in the face of evidence he could not have had the meetings.

An investigation by The Washington Times of Mr. Kerry’s public events and schedules found no opportunity for a meeting with any foreign head of state during the past year.

After weeks of pummeling Mr. Bush on his handling of the Iraq war and the economy, and as he rose in the polls, the Massachusetts senator has turned suddenly defensive in response to a fierce White House counterattack that challenged him to name the anonymous foreign leaders or drop the accusation altogether.

“I’m not making anything up at all,” Mr. Kerry said on Monday. But his increasingly defensive posture has only served to divert attention from his larger campaign message and that, Democrats say, has interrupted his momentum and brought questions about his credibility from top administration officials and late-night TV comedians.

“The effect of this is that it has thrown his campaign off message,” said a senior Democratic Party campaign adviser. “This is not the debate he wanted to have.”

This is the same complaint that Mr. Kerry’s campaign has been getting in recent days from other party advisers, foreign policy strategists and media consultants who say he needlessly opened himself up to a brutal series of Republican counterpunches.

“Kerry sounds defensive. He has to understand when not to respond to the attack. He needs to go back and put Bush on the defensive. He has to remember to stay on message,” said Michigan Democratic campaign pollster Ed Sarpolus.

“Obviously, any day that we’re not talking about the sluggish economy is a day that John Kerry is not talking about what he wants to talk about,” Democratic consultant George Shelton said.

Even Democratic foreign policy advisers who believe Mr. Kerry’s story concede that he virtually invited the Republican attacks by making a claim of private conversations that he could not or would not confirm.

“I think he’s right, but he’s also in the unfortunate position of not being able to prove it and Bush found that out very quickly and then deployed [Secretary of State Colin L.] Powell, the most widely respected secretary of state, to make the critique,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Sent out Sunday to put down Mr. Kerry’s remarks, Mr. Powell suggested that there were plenty of reasons to doubt the senator’s veracity.

“If he feels it is that important an assertion to make, he ought to list some names. If he can’t list names, then perhaps he should find something else to talk about. I don’t know what foreign leader Senator Kerry is talking about. It’s an easy charge, an easy assertion,” the secretary said.

A survey by The Times of embassies of key nations that opposed the U.S.-led effort to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq found that no leaders of those nations — including Germany, France, Russia, Mexico and Canada — have met with Mr. Kerry since the beginning of 2003.

“Kerry was caught in a position where he could not substantiate it and Bush engaged the fight,” Mr. O’Hanlon said. “I don’t know if Bush has the momentum now, but I would certainly acknowledge that he has gotten in a couple of blows.”

But foreign policy advisers such as Mr. O’Hanlon say that Mr. Kerry’s claim that he has the support of many foreign leaders also raises “the more interesting argument about whether American foreign policy should be viewed as a popularity contest.”

“And the answer is, not always. We have to do what is in our interests to protect ourselves, but at some point lack of foreign support can hurt you,” he said.

But now Mr. Kerry’s claim has become the brunt of jokes on the late-night TV shows, a development that could open him up to further ridicule.

David Letterman said Tuesday on his “Late Show” that when Mr. Kerry “said a lot of world leaders want him to be president,” the administration said, “Yeah, well, like who? And then John Kerry said, ‘Well, I really can’t say.’ So now they are really hammering Kerry. The only name he could come up with? Queen Latifah.”

• Bill Sammon contributed to this report.

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