Monday, March 15, 2004

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday challenged Sen. John Kerry, the likely Democratic nominee, to identify the foreign leaders who he says want to see him elected president.

Mr. Kerry said last week foreign leaders have told him face to face: “You’ve got to win this one. You’ve got to beat this guy.” He said the foreign leaders cannot say so publicly for fear of displeasing the Bush administration.

“If he feels it is that important an assertion to make, he ought to list some names,” Mr. Powell told “Fox News Sunday.” “If he can’t list names, then perhaps he should find something else to talk about. I don’t know what foreign leaders Senator Kerry is talking about. It’s an easy charge, an easy assertion to make.”

Mr. Kerry declined yesterday to name any of those leaders, saying private conversations should stay private.

“No leader would obviously share a conversation if I started listing them,” the senator told a town-hall meeting in Bethlehem, Pa.

The Massachusetts senator said he would not “play that game” of whether he had had conversations with foreign officials other than heads of state and heads of government.

“The point is that all across the world, America is meeting with a new level of hostility,” he said. “I have heard from foreign leaders elsewhere in the world who don’t appreciate the Bush administration and would love to see a change in the leadership of the United States.”

A review of Mr. Kerry’s schedules and campaign appearances shows that he has not made an official trip abroad since he announced his candidacy and that he has been in the same city as a foreign leader only once during that period.

Mr. Kerry’s statements raised comparisons to previous presidential candidates whose claims hurt or even ended their campaigns for the White House.

Al Gore said during the 2000 campaign that he had “played the lead role” in creating the Internet.

On another occasion he described how his father, the late Sen. Albert Gore of Tennessee, “taught me to clean out hog waste with a shovel and how to clear land with a two-bladed ax.”

“He taught me how to plow a steep hillside with a team of mules. He taught me how to take up hay all day long in the hot sun.”

Mr. Gore grew up in Washington, where the family lived in the Fairfax Hotel on Embassy Row, and attended exclusive private schools and Harvard University.

In his acceptance speech for the vice-presidential nomination at the 1996 Democratic convention, he told of how he became a fierce opponent of smoking after watching his sister die of lung cancer. But in 1988, years after his sister died, he told tobacco farmers how he had helped raise tobacco on the family’s Tennessee farm: “I’ve hoed it. I’ve chopped it. I’ve put it in a barn and sold it.”

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware withdrew from the 1988 Democratic presidential primary race after he lifted details from a British Labor Party leader’s statements about his life working in coal mines and claimed them as his own. It subsequently was revealed that none of the senator’s ancestors had worked as coal miners.

During the 1988 Republican presidential primaries, Pat Robertson released a biographical sketch describing himself as a Marine officer assigned to combat duty during the Korean War. He was detached from his unit, which was headed for the battlefield, and spent the war performing administrative tasks far from the fighting.

In his 1976 campaign, Jimmy Carter, who ran on the slogan “I will never lie to you,” described himself as a “nuclear physicist.” He later conceded that he actually was trained as a nuclear engineer for duty on nuclear submarines.

President Clinton once described how a wave of fires at black churches rekindled “vivid and painful memories of black churches being burned in my own state when I was a child.” Arkansas newspapers reported that there was no record of any black churches being burned in their state in Mr. Clinton’s lifetime, if ever.

These incidents could be lessons for Mr. Kerry, say campaign historians and analysts.

“He has to make sure that he doesn’t put himself in the same position Al Gore put himself when he became the brunt of late-night jokes about his claims and background,” says elections analyst Stuart Rothenberg. “If and when a candidate loses his credibility, he loses the foundation of his candidacy.”

The questions for Mr. Kerry followed sharp questions put to the Bush campaign over the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, one of the chief justifications for the war to topple Saddam Hussein.

“Obviously, if the candidate is shown to be lying or using extreme form of hyperbole, it can hurt,” says pollster John Zogby. “It can especially hurt Kerry when he stands to gain a bit on the president because he has lost points on trustworthiness.

“I’m not sure this is the sort of thing, if it happens to be untrue, that will cost Kerry millions of votes. But if it costs a few thousands of votes [in key battleground states], it could be pivotal. You’ve got to be careful when you are running for president.”

Mr. Kerry had been accused before for embellishing facts about himself, his past and his record. In a Senate speech in 1986, he spoke of himself as among “those … fortunate to share an Irish ancestry,” and in a later undelivered speech, written by Mr. Kerry, he talked about “my English ancestors.” The Boston Globe later reported that Mr. Kerry is the grandson of Czech immigrants of Jewish ancestry and said it could find no Irish ancestry.

“Most politicians exaggerate,” says Charles Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity. “Is Kerry capable of exaggeration? The answer is yes. That’s been established by the Boston news media. But it’s difficult to know who he met with. I think the comment about foreign leaders was fairly vague. You might as well try to nail Jell-O to a wall trying to ascertain the truth of this particular situation.”

Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt challenged Mr. Kerry to show evidence that foreign leaders told him that they prefer him to Mr. Bush.

“Candidates have an obligation to back up their assertion with facts,” he said, contending that Mr. Kerry has a “very conspiracy-oriented view of the world.”

“So far, the only concrete evidence that I’ve seen is that [North Korean officials have said they] would like to see him win.”

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