Coolness Under Fire

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Kerry at a campaign rally in Allentown, Pennsylvania on Friday

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But nothing has dragged down Kerry like his kaleidoscopic positions on the war in Iraq, which have long been difficult to follow, are based in arcane, tactical considerations about Senate voting procedures and are subject to endless refinement. Almost everyone knows that Kerry voted for the war in 2002 and then against the $87 billion in reconstruction funds last fall when his campaign began to lose ground to antiwar candidate Howard Dean. That bit of political expediency would have been survivable had Kerry not turned up, exhausted, in Huntington, W.Va., a few months later confessing that "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

Karl Rove called that comment the most damaging 11 seconds in American politics—and the Bush campaign made the remark the center of a multimillion-dollar ad blitz in the months that followed. But in trying to clarify things since, Kerry has often made things murkier and has added footnotes to his position that have boomeranged on him later.

For example, in July Kerry delivered a popular line at the convention about how the U.S. "never goes to war because we want to; we only go to war because we have to." When Bush's advisers heard that, they saw an opening. In August Bush all but dared Kerry to say whether, knowing then what he knows now, he would have given the President the "authority" to go into Iraq, as he did in late 2002. It was a taunt Kerry should have ignored, for any response held some dangers. But perhaps because of the confusion raised by his March comment in Huntington, Kerry took the dare and stuck by his initial vote for the war, arguing once more that the problem was not his vote but the way Bush had misused his authority once Congress granted it to him.

It sounded consistent, but Bush now had what he wanted and could afford to wait for the right moment to play the card. When Kerry sharpened his rhetoric on the war once more and began just last week to call it "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time," Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney jumped on him, reminding voters that even Kerry had said he would vote for the war all over again if he had the chance. The point was no longer whether the war was right or wrong; it was whether you could take anything Kerry ever said to the bank. In the course of about a month, Bush had found a way to level the playing field on the one issue on which he was most vulnerable.

And Kerry helped him at every step.

Perhaps what's most frustrating for Kerry's supporters is that his position is not that complicated—and is intellectually defensible.

He voted for the war to strengthen Bush's diplomatic leverage with allies and against the reconstruction money as a vote of no confidence on the handling of the aftermath, and he insists he would have conducted both the diplomacy before the invasion and the cleanup afterward very differently. As he explained it to TIME, "The contrast could not be clearer. They spent a lot of money trying to confuse people, but I have been consistent. I would not have taken the country into war the way he did. I would not have put young Americans in harm's way without a plan to win the peace. I would not have interrupted as abruptly the effort to build alliances with other countries. I would not have turned my back on the international community. And Americans are paying a $200 billion cost today because this President rushed to war."

a top kerry aide predicted that by "turning Iraq into a domestic issue," the nominee would soon turn the race around. But it is far from certain that this latest tack will hold for very long because other advisers believe Kerry must get away from the Iraq tar baby once and for all. All that suggests a deeper problem in the campaign: Kerryland appears to be arranged not for speed but for consultation.

The Kerry campaign at times resembles a floating five-ring circus of longtime Democratic operatives who have all sorts of views, allegiances and ambitions. That worked fine when it was up against Howard Dean's homespun Vermont militia. Against Bush-Cheney '04, a disciplined hierarchy run by Karl Rove and manned by fervent Bush loyalists who take no prisoners, it could be a recipe for a landslide. Second-guessing is taboo under Rove, chiefly because Bush trusts him completely. But it's more like a privilege of membership at Kerry HQ, with the candidate himself often joining the debate.

"Their candidate knows what he thinks," said a Democratic Party elder. "Ours feels no compunction to talk about all sides of an issue."

Hoping to halt that habit, John Sasso, a hard-nosed party veteran, has taken up residence on Kerry's campaign plane. Sasso's job is to help target Kerry's wandering message and keep him from going wobbly.

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