Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry on Sunday defended his recent assertion that foreign leaders have told him that they hope he beats President Bush in the fall election, but he rebuffed requests to identify any of those officials.
Questions about the Massachusetts senator's claim came from such disparate sources as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who called on Kerry to name the leaders, and a man at a town hall meeting in Bethlehem, Pa., who engaged the candidate in a contentious argument about his statement.
"Were they people like the president of North Korea?" Cedric Brown, 52, shouted at Kerry during an eight-minute exchange Sunday afternoon. "I need to know that." The presumed Democratic nominee remained calm but firm throughout the encounter, in which Brown, a Bush supporter and registered Republican, accused him of colluding with foreign governments to bring down the president.
Kerry rejected that claim, saying he had merely heard from leaders who felt alienated by the administration.
"I'm talking about our allies; I'm talking about people who were our friends nine months ago," he said, as hundreds of people in the auditorium of a Bethlehem community college rose in a sustained standing ovation. "I'm talking about people who ought to be on our side on Iraq and aren't, because this administration has pushed them away."
Later, reporters pressed Kerry to clarify whether he had met with these officials in person. The candidate insisted that he merely said he had "heard from" foreign leaders in his original remark.
In fact, Kerry told donors at a fundraiser in Hollywood, Fla., on March 8, "I've met foreign leaders who can't go out and say this publicly, but boy, they look at you and say, 'You gotta win this; you gotta beat this guy.' "
On Sunday, the candidate said he had communicated with officials from other countries both in person and through "conversations." But he refused to provide any more information about the leaders in question, who he said came from "different levels" of government.
"I can't violate any conversation, because no one would share something with me again," he said at a news conference. "But I'll tell you this: You don't have to have that conversation to understand that America has lost some of its lift on a global basis."
The persistent questions about Kerry's claim came after the senator fielded other criticism for several outspoken comments, including a remark in Chicago last week that his Republican critics are "crooked" and "lying." On Sunday, Kerry acknowledged the need to be careful with his words.
"Sometimes as a candidate you may pick an inartful way ... that isn't as effective as other ways," he told reporters. "I'm certainly going to make sure as I go forward here that I am very careful to pick ways that nobody will misinterpret what I'm saying."
The likely Democratic nominee was put on the defensive on an otherwise ebullient day on the campaign trail.
In Bethlehem, more than 700 people showed up for his town hall meeting, overflowing the auditorium into a hall and cheering as Kerry denounced Bush's economic policies. Later, about 1,000 people chanting "Outsource Bush!" and waving signs waited more than an hour for Kerry at the University of Akron.
Also on Sunday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Bush had asked him and Powell to refrain from making political statements.
"He thinks it's best if his secretary of State and his secretary of Defense tend to their responsibilities and not allow their departments to become enmeshed in the campaign," Rumsfeld said on CBS' "Face the Nation." But Powell seemed to join the political fray when he was asked in a different television interview about Kerry's statement about foreign leaders.
"If he feels that it is that important an assertion to make, he ought to list some names," the secretary of State said during an appearance on "Fox News Sunday." "And if he can't list names, then perhaps he should find something else to talk about."
In Bethlehem several hours later, Kerry was challenged more combatively by Brown, the owner of a Lehigh Valley sign store.
"I have a question of character for you," Brown said halfway through the event, abruptly standing up and interrupting the candidate. "Recently, you said you met with foreign leaders. They wanted to help you overthrow the Bush presidency and his administration." As the audience booed and shouted him down, Brown yelled, "I want an answer!" Kerry quieted the crowd.
"Shh, everybody, please, no, no, no," he said. "This is democracy; this is the way it works. This is fine; I have no problem with it." As Brown remained standing with his arms crossed, Kerry said he had spoken with a number of foreign leaders in the last two years who were hoping that Bush would be replaced.
"I've also had friends of mine who have met with leaders -- as recently as this past week I've heard from a couple," he said. "I'm not going to tell you who they are because that would betray their position."
Brown demanded, "Why not tell us who it was?" prompting more boos from the audience.
"Senator, you're making yourself sound like a liar," Brown said.
Kerry remained calm, but fired back: "Are you a Democrat or a Republican? What are you? ... You answer the question. Did you vote for George Bush?"
"I voted for George Bush, but ... " Brown said, before he was drowned out by the audience.
"Thank you," Kerry said. "See, democracy works both ways."