- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 12, 2004

John Kerry is running a new TV ad in battleground states that apparently suggests he would not have gone to war in Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein’s terrorist regime.

But the campaign ad, focusing on the war’s $200 billion cost, only adds to the growing confusion over Mr. Kerry’s ever-contradictory position on Iraq and what he would now do differently there.

The commercial attempts to contrast costs of the war to what Mr. Kerry says are unmet needs at home on the economy, jobs, health care and the deficit. The 30-second spot begins by saying, “George Bush: $200 billion for Iraq. In America, lost jobs and rising health care costs. George Bush’s wrong choices have weakened us here at home.” According to the spot, Mr. Kerry would have used the money to “lower health care premiums” and cut “the deficit to protect Medicare and Social Security.”

The Massachusetts liberal underscored the ad in speeches last week: “I would not have made the wrong choices that are forcing us to pay nearly the entire cost of this war.”

But there are problems with Mr. Kerry’s latest attempt to open a new campaign front over Iraq, an issue many Democrats say should not be the focus of his presidential agenda.

First, Mr. Kerry voted for the Senate resolution that clearly approved of going to war in Iraq. Second, nowhere does Mr. Kerry say how he would have reduced the war’s costs. Even with support from France, Germany and other countries, our share of the costs would not have changed significantly, Pentagon officials say.

The only way Mr. Kerry could have saved that $200 billion would be if he “chose not to go to war,” Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post’s ad watch reporter, wrote last week.

Mr. Kerry’s ad offensive on Iraq is the product of his new team of Clinton advisers brought in to sharpen his message and stop his freefall in the polls. But the early reviews suggest their strategy is only pushing Mr. Kerry deeper into a quagmire of contradictions and confusion of his own making.

How does Mr. Kerry square his latest statement with an earlier position he would have spent more money for the war? As early as August 2003, Mr. Kerry said on “Meet The Press” that President Bush should “increase” funds for the war “by whatever number of billions of dollars it takes to win.”

But later, when the $87 billion military funding bill came up, Mr. Kerry voted against it, after having said earlier no one in good conscience could vote against funding for troops sent to fight for our country. Last month, he said if he had it all to do over, he still would vote to go to war. More recently, though, he declared this “the wrong war at the wrong time,” a campaign line lifted whole from Howard Dean’s 2003 antiwar speeches.

It is difficult to recall a presidential candidate who changed course on a major national security issue as many times as Mr. Kerry has done over the past two years.

Mr. Kerry’s flip-flops, as well as his unending concentration on his Vietnam experiences and Iraq, have long been an under-the-radar concern within the party’s leadership. Now many Democrats, especially at the state level, are criticizing publicly.

Instead of “refighting Vietnam and the entire focus on Iraq,” the Kerry campaign “ought to be about how you win the national war against terrorism,” Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Mark Warner told The Washington Times last week.

“We’ve been going back and forth on the situation in Iraq. The debate about how we got there is over. The debate now is how we finish the job. I don’t think there are very many Americans who don’t feel that we have a responsibility to finish the job in Iraq,” Mr. Warner said.

Other Democratic officials I have talked to in recent days tell me they want Mr. Kerry to get off his near-total concentration on Iraq and turn his full attention to bread-and-butter issues of jobs and economic insecurity.

“Remember James Carville’s line ‘It’s the economy, stupid’? Well, it’s the economy again, stupid. That’s what this election should be about,” West Virginia Democratic Chairman Mike Callaghan told me. “Pocketbook issues are what should drive the voters in this election.”

Mr. Callaghan, who said Mr. Bush is gaining in his state, thinks Mr. Kerry is making a big mistake if he gets “pulled into the national security debate, because that is not the driving issue. The economy, that’s what is driving the voters in this election.”

“He has to refocus the debate on domestic issues,” adds Harold Ickes, Clinton White House deputy chief of staff. “Kerry can’t ignore the commander-in-chief stuff. But that’s not where the election is going to be won or lost.”

Mr. Kerry seemed to be taking this advice as he headed into the Labor Day weekend, but then he lurched back into the Iraq war debate in a renewed bid to re-energize his party’s antiwar base, just as Mr. Bush’s top strategists hoped he would.

Two months from now, that decision may be seen as the worst mistake of his turbulent campaign.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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