Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Sen. John Kerry struggled to pull his presidential candidacy out of a free fall yesterday with a sharpened denunciation of President Bush’s handling of the economy and the war against terrorism in Iraq.

Mr. Kerry officially announced his candidacy for president yesterday in a blistering speech that accused Mr. Bush of not doing enough to protect Americans from terrorism.

“Overseas, George Bush has led and misled us on a course at odds with 200 years of our history,” he said. “He has squandered the good will of the world after September 11, and he has lost the respect and the influence that we need to make our country safe.

“Two years after the tragic events of 9/11, we have not made our nation safe enough.”

In a location tailored to highlight his Vietnam War credentials — the massive aircraft carrier USS Yorktown in Charleston, S.C., served as backdrop — the Massachusetts senator took his strongest shots to date at Mr. Bush on the Iraq war. The issue has roused his party’s antiwar activists and catapulted his chief rival, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, well ahead of the Democratic pack of nine candidates.

“We are seeing the peril in Iraq every day. I voted to threaten the use of force to make Saddam Hussein comply with the resolutions of the United Nations. I believe that was right. But it was wrong to rush to war without building a true international coalition, and with no plan to win the peace,” he said.

Perhaps no other issue has hurt Mr. Kerry’s campaign more than his vote to go to war in Iraq, while simultaneously criticizing Mr. Bush’s “rush to war” and his handling of the postwar efforts. It was a position that opened Mr. Kerry to damaging attacks from his fellow Democratic candidates — Mr. Dean, who opposed the war, and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who accused him of being “ambivalent and indecisive” on Iraq.

A Gallup Poll for CNN and USA Today showed Mr. Kerry sinking to fourth place nationally in the Democratic presidential nominating race with only 9 percent support from his party.

The war debate has divided the senator’s campaign advisers. Some want Mr. Kerry to more aggressively attack Mr. Dean’s antiwar campaign, while others are urging him to reach out more to the party’s antiwar base, thereby cutting in to Mr. Dean’s expanding lead.

Mr. Kerry restated his commitment to a strong national defense against terrorism, but also devoted much of his speech to a more visceral appeal to the party’s antiwar base. At one point, he raised the specter of Iraq turning into another Vietnam War as the number of dead and wounded continue to rise.

“So long as Iraq remains an American intervention and not an international undertaking, we will face increasing danger and mounting casualties,” he said. “The swagger of a president saying ‘Bring it on’ will never bring peace or safety to our troops.”

“Pride is no substitute for protecting our young men and women in uniform. Half the names on the Vietnam Memorial are there because of pride, because of a president who refused to admit we were on the wrong road, that we might be wrong,” he said.

Republican officials responded with disdain yesterday to Mr. Kerry’s announcement.

“Maybe the candidacy he’s announced today will be better than the one he’s had for the past eight months, which finds him tied [in a CBS News poll] with Al Sharpton at 5 percent nationwide,” said Jim Dyke, chief spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

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