"I've Been in Worse Situations"

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In his first wide-ranging interview with a national news organization in more than a month, John Kerry sat down with TIME's national political correspondent Karen Tumulty last week as his campaign plane flew between a health-care forum in St. Louis, Mo., and a rally in Allentown, Pa. With a guitar case resting nearby and his daughter Alexandra, 31, popping in at one point, the challenger appeared very focused as he reflected on what lies ahead in the final seven weeks of the campaign—and, if he manages to pull off a come-from-behind victory, the four years after that.

TIME
This past month has been pretty brutal for you, between the Swift Boat ads, the Republican Convention and the Vice President saying if you get elected, it would invite another terrorist attack. Have you come to any new conclusions about whom you're running against and what you have to do to win?

KERRY
I think the President's unwillingness to walk away from those comments makes it clear that he and the Vice President will say anything and do anything to get elected and to hold on to power. It was a shameful and outrageous effort.

But you know, I've been in worse situations in my life. The attacks don't attack me as much as they attack Americans and America. They're trying to distract people from the real issues that matter.

America is not as safe as we ought to be after 9/11. We can do a better job at homeland security. I can fight a more effective war on terror. The standard of living for the average American has gone down. People's incomes have dropped. Five million Americans have lost their health insurance. The deficit is the largest it's been in the history of this country. They're taking money from Social Security and transferring it to the wealthiest people in America to drive us into debt. They're shredding alliances around the world with people we have traditionally been able to rely on. That's what bothers me.

TIME
What do you need to do to make this race about what you want it to be about?

KERRY
Draw the contrast; be crystal clear about it. That's what I've been doing every day. George Bush has made the wrong choices for America. He's leading the country in the wrong direction. John Edwards and I have better choices. We have a health-care plan for all Americans. We're going to stop subsidizing jobs that go overseas and create jobs here in America. We're going to fund education and not leave millions of children behind every day. The trail of broken promises and reversed decisions of this Administration is unlike any I have ever seen at any time that I have been in public life, and I'm going to draw that picture as clear as a bell.

TIME
Speaking of clarity, a number of your allies have said that you haven't drawn a clear contrast between yourself and President Bush on Iraq.

KERRY
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.

TIME
Is the President being as aggressive as he should be in dealing with insurgent strongholds in Iraq?

KERRY
At this moment in time, I'm not sitting with the generals in front of me for the full briefing. I'm not going to comment on that right now. That is up to the President. It's his decision to make. But I will tell you this, that we've gone backward in Iraq, and we've gone backward on the war on terror. I'm not President until Jan. 20, if America elects me. I don't know what I'll find in Iraq.

But I'll tell you this: I will pursue a far more aggressive, proactive statesmanship role to bring countries to our side in an effort in which they have an interest. Ninety percent of the casualties and costs are being borne by Americans. That's inexcusable.

I believe very deeply that it takes a new President, a new credibility, a fresh start, to change the whole equation in Iraq. I will get countries involved in ways that the President doesn't have them involved today, and I will get our troops home.

TIME
How? Diplomats say that it is not in our allies' political interest—KERRY
George Bush has made it not in their interest today. There are all sorts of options with respect to Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds in the region that this Administration is not exploring. They have failed in their diplomacy utterly. In fact, they have made it easy for countries to say no, because of their arrogance, because of the way the President chose to go to war.

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