Wednesday, September 8, 2004

CINCINNATI — Sen. John Kerry called the war in Iraq a “catastrophic choice” yesterday in the restored train station here where President Bush laid out his case for war nearly two years ago.

“Twenty-three months ago, President Bush came right here to this great civic and educational institution and this great city to ask the American people for our support,” Mr. Kerry said. “And he promised to make the right choices when it came to sending young Americans to Iraq.”

The Democratic presidential nominee then ticked off a list of “wrong choices” he says Mr. Bush has made since Congress — with support from Mr. Kerry and running mate Sen. John Edwards — voted to authorize the war.

“Here in Cincinnati, he said that if Congress approved the resolution giving him the authority to use force, it did not mean that military action would be unavoidable,” Mr. Kerry said. “But he chose not to give the weapons inspectors the time they needed not just to get the job done but to give meaning to the words, ‘going to war as a last resort.’”

The speech, which was interrupted several times by standing ovations and once by a heckler, comes one month after Mr. Kerry told reporters that he would have voted to authorize the war even if he knew then what he knows now.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) belittled the speech and sent out a transcript of it as proof of yet another evolution in Mr. Kerry’s position on the war.

“John Kerry hoped to clarify his position on Iraq today by adding dirt to muddy water,” RNC Communications Director Jim Dyke said in an e-mail. “But don’t take our word for it, read the speech.”

Mr. Kerry’s specific complaints about Mr. Bush’s handling of the war include poor planning, the lack of a larger coalition and the lack of body armor and other equipment supplied to American troops. Unlike many Democrats, Mr. Kerry has agreed with the Bush administration that the war in Iraq was part of the larger war against terrorism.

The Bush administration has acknowledged miscalculations in the planning of the war, but strenuously defends the coalition fighting with American troops in Iraq. Republicans also dismiss Mr. Kerry’s complaints about troop equipment by pointing to the Massachusetts senator’s vote against the $87 billion funding bill that included much of that equipment.

In his speech, Mr. Kerry said he and America had been “misled” by Mr. Bush and quoted from the president’s speech here in October 2002.

“If we have to act, we will take every precaution that is possible,” Mr. Kerry quoted the president as saying. “We will plan carefully. We will act with the full power of the United States military. We will act with allies at our side, and we will prevail.”

“George W. Bush’s wrong choices have led America in the wrong direction in Iraq and left America without the resources we need so desperately here at home,” Mr. Kerry added. “The cost of the president’s go-it-alone policy in Iraq is now $200 billion and counting.”

Even in discussing Iraq, Mr. Kerry also sought to direct voters’ attention to domestic issues, an area where polls show him prevailing over Mr. Bush.

“Two hundred billion for Iraq, but they tell us we can’t afford after-school programs for our children. Two hundred billion for Iraq, but they tell us we can’t afford health care for our veterans,” he said. “I call this course a catastrophic choice that has cost us $200 billion because we went it alone and we’ve paid an even more unbearable price in young American lives.”

Shortly after Mr. Kerry’s speech began, a heckler rose and shouted at Mr. Kerry about the atrocities he reported were committed by fellow soldiers in Vietnam.

Two Kerry supporters wearing bright yellow “Sheet Metal Workers for Kerry-Edwards” seized the man in their midst, twisted him into a headlock and pounded him down onto the floorboards of the bleachers. They muzzled him with their hands as he struggled to get back onto his feet and continue his tirade.

Mr. Kerry never stopped speaking, though he acknowledged the man’s presence. Secret Service agents eventually escorted him out of the hall.

After the speech, campaign officials identified the man as a Kentucky county chairman of Mr. Bush’s 2000 election as well as a spokesman for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that is running ads attacking Mr. Kerry for his conduct during the Vietnam War.

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