WASHINGTON -- Is Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) trying to have it both ways on Iraq?
Of all the Democratic presidential contenders, Kerry seems the most tortured about the possibility of a military confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In a speech last week, Kerry dramatically said to President Bush: "Mr. President, do not rush to war." But meeting with reporters this week after a critical report from the chief United Nations weapons inspector, Kerry said he could support a U.N. resolution that gave Iraq 30 days to disarm or face invasion.
Kerry says his position has been consistent -- he's argued that the United States should seek as broad an international coalition as possible to confront Hussein, but not foreclose the possibility of acting alone if necessary.
But virtually all of Kerry's rivals for the 2004 Democratic nomination believe he is trying to straddle the issue by shifting his emphasis at different times and for different audiences. In unison, strategists for the other leading Democrats charge that Kerry is trying to appeal to peace groups influential in the primary by criticizing Bush's approach while maintaining his general election viability by accepting the eventual use of force.
"It doesn't really pass the smell test," said a top advisor to a Democratic contender. "It sounds like he is trying to protect himself so he can point back and say I supported the military action, but signal to all the peaceniks that all this is wrong, the president has been handling it abysmally and I am really with you."
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a 2004 contender who has been among Bush's loudest critics on Iraq, said Thursday that he considered Kerry's shifts in emphasis "problematic."
Dean said he did not want to single out Kerry for criticism because he believes several of the other contenders also are sending mixed messages. But Dean added: "You can't continue to change your positions back and forth. We can't win with somebody who does that."
Not all Democrats are so critical. David Loebsack, a Democratic activist and political scientist at Cornell College in Iowa, says he is more unequivocally opposed to a possible war than Kerry. But he said he considers Kerry's "nuanced, some would say ambiguous," view representative of the ambivalence many Americans feel about the Iraqi situation.
"I think it's unfair to be highly critical of Kerry along these lines," Loebsack said. "I think he's struggling with it, but I think he is struggling with the way a lot of the American people are struggling with it."
This may all be a distant echo of the struggles Kerry went through a generation ago: He volunteered to serve in Vietnam and won a Bronze Star and a Silver Star as a naval officer, but when he returned to the United States, he became a leader among veterans opposed to the war.
Kerry's conflict about Iraq has produced, at the least, a view more shaded and more subject to variations in tone than any of his rivals.
In the Democratic field, three likely contenders have lined up most emphatically with Bush on the possible use of force against Iraq: Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Sens. John Edwards (D-N.C.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.). All three voted for the congressional resolution last fall authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq with or without U.N. authorization.
At times, each has urged Bush to present the case against Iraq more aggressively to audiences at home and abroad, and to release more specific intelligence information supporting his allegations that Hussein is continuing to hide weapons of mass destruction.
But the three have consistently reconfirmed their support for using force if Iraq doesn't disarm. All opposed the proposal this week by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to require a second congressional vote authorizing the use of force.
Two Democratic contenders have been most consistently opposed to the use of force: Dean and African American activist Al Sharpton. Dean, who has been drawing increasing interest from peace activists in Iowa and New Hampshire, insists Bush hasn't "made the case" for war and says he would have voted against last fall's congressional resolution authorizing the use of force.
Yet even Dean has not unequivocally closed the door on war, which might open him to the charge of mixed signals that he's leveled against others. In his Thursday comments, Dean said if Bush presents what he considered to be persuasive evidence that Iraq still had weapons of mass destruction, he would support military action, even without U.N. authorization.
Kerry's position, drawing from both of these camps, is the most difficult to pigeonhole -- or, his critics argue, nail down.
In the weeks before last fall's congressional resolution, Kerry stressed his disagreements with the administration, arguing that Bush was moving too quickly and without enough international support toward war.
In a New York Times commentary in September and a speech at an Iowa Democratic Party fund-raising dinner in October, Kerry said that although the United States could not allow Iraq to maintain weapons of mass destruction, Bush should work through the U.N. to restart the inspection process before considering invasion.
"You don't go to war as a matter of first resort; you go to war as a matter of last resort," he said to loud applause. Six days later, Kerry voted for the Senate resolution authorizing use of force. In his floor statement, Kerry again qualified his view; he said that while the United States should not give the U.N. "veto power" over American actions, neither was he committing himself to support any unilateral move against Iraq that Bush might propose.
Kerry next made a splash with a Jan. 23 speech in which he urged Bush to delay any possible attack against Iraq, both to give inspections more time and to "show the world some appropriate patience in building a genuine [international] coalition."
Then, just before Bush's State of the Union address Tuesday, Kerry told a small group of reporters he believed the report from chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix the day before had shown Iraq to be in "material breach" of the U.N. resolution demanding disarmament -- thus triggering the legal threshold for war. And while Kerry again called on Bush to intensify his efforts to attract more international support, he said he could support a U.N. resolution authorizing an invasion if Iraq does not disarm within 30 days.
"That would sound pretty reasonable," Kerry said.
One last twist came this month. As first reported in the Baltimore Sun, Kerry complained to a group of activists in Iowa City that Gephardt and Lieberman, by endorsing the version of the use-of-force resolution sought by Bush, had "completely pulled the rug out" from senators trying to craft a less-expansive measure. Kerry's staff confirms the account.
Yet, on the other side of the ledger, Kerry refused to endorse Kennedy's call this week for a second congressional vote. And, in his speech last week, he told a questioner who suggested that force would never be justified against Iraq: "If you don't believe in the U.N.
Even his advisors acknowledge Kerry is walking a fine line, both politically and in terms of sorting through his own convictions. Kerry's supporters believe the complexity of his views is justified by the complexity of the challenge posed by Iraq and the danger that a U.S. invasion without broad support might undermine the war against terrorism.
But his critics argue that Kerry has produced a view so nuanced that it fails the preeminent test of presidential leadership: providing clear direction for the country.
"Because he's a decorated veteran, people give him a little more running room," said an aide to another contender. "But there are few other people who could equivocate and shift around this way without getting called on it."