Wednesday, September 8, 2004

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The “only legitimate reason” for invading Iraq was the threat of weapons of mass destruction, Sen. John Kerry said yesterday, less than a month after he said he would have voted to authorize war even if he knew such weapons would not be found.

In his speech yesterday here in running mate Sen. John Edwards’ home state, Mr. Kerry also accused the Bush administration of vacillating on the issue of invading Iraq and chided President Bush for not understanding Mr. Kerry’s position on the war.

“He says that he’s confused about the differences in our positions on Iraq,” the Democratic presidential nominee said of Mr. Bush. “And yesterday, he even tried to claim that we had the same position.”

Mr. Kerry has been roundly ridiculed by Republicans for voting to authorize the war in Iraq, saying at the time of invasion that he supported the action, then opposing the war and voting against a supplemental funding bill for the war.

And just last month, Mr. Kerry said he would have voted to authorize war even if he knew weapons of mass destruction would not be found.

“So, let me explain in a few simple words,” Mr. Kerry continued. “It’s not that I would have done just one thing differently in Iraq, I would have done everything differently in Iraq.”

Mr. Kerry said Mr. Bush had “no plan to win the peace, failed to build an international coalition,” and launched the war before diplomacy had been exhausted.

The Massachusetts senator also plans to give a speech today outlining all the “wrong choices” Mr. Bush made on the war in Iraq, using the same Cincinnati hall that the president used for a 2002 prime-time televised speech to outline his case for war with Saddam Hussein.

Also drawing rebuke from Republicans is Mr. Kerry’s new assertion that the war he authorized was the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Unlike many Democrats, however, Mr. Kerry agrees with Mr. Bush that the war in Iraq is part of the larger war on terror.

Mr. Kerry also noted yesterday that Vice President Dick Cheney opposed marching to Baghdad during the 1991 Persian Gulf war because “if you went to Baghdad, you owned it.” Mr. Cheney, he noted, has since become a major proponent of the war in Iraq.

“They continually shift their ground,” Mr. Kerry charged.

“The only legitimate reason was the weapons of mass destruction question,” he explained yesterday. “But after you built the international coalition, exhausted the [U.N.] inspections and you have no other choice.”

Last month, Mr. Kerry was asked by reporters whether he would have voted to authorize war even if he knew no weapons would be found.

“Yes, I would have voted for the authority,” Mr. Kerry said. “I believe it’s the right authority for a president to have, but I would have used that authority — as I have said throughout this campaign — effectively.”

After Mr. Kerry’s speech yesterday, one campaign official disputed that there is any difference in the candidate’s stances, saying that Mr. Kerry voted to authorize force in Iraq so that the president would have the full force of the U.S. military behind him as he negotiated for further weapons inspections.

One Democrat noticeably absent from yesterday’s speech here was Erskine Bowles, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat that Mr. Edwards is vacating.

Nor did Mr. Kerry mention Mr. Bowles when he commended a number of state Democrats — some present, others absent — by name.

Mr. Bowles, who worked as President Clinton’s White House chief of staff, has been attacked by Republicans in the state for his ties to Mr. Clinton and other national Democrats, who are not terribly popular here.

The Bowles campaign downplayed the candidate’s absence, saying he was traveling in Washington yesterday.

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