TAMPA, Fla. – John Kerry (search) says he no longer considers Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search) to be a statesman, but rather "an outlaw to the peace process" in the Middle East who has been rightly shuffled aside.
In a 1997 book, Kerry described "Arafat's transformation from outlaw to statesman." But in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday he said he no longer views Arafat favorably.
"Obviously, Yasser Arafat (search) has been an impediment to the peace process," said Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee-in-waiting. "He missed a historic opportunity and he's proved himself to be irrelevant."
The Bush administration has ruled out dealing with Arafat, a veteran Palestinian activist, claiming he is tainted with terror against Israel, a close U.S. ally. In peace process, the administration has dealt only with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) and other senior Palestinian officials appointed by Arafat.
Referring to the Palestinian leader as a statesman would be potentially damaging in Florida, which has a heavy Jewish population and a Democratic primary Tuesday. Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas also hold primaries Tuesday.
"He was (a statesman) in 1995," Kerry said, recalling frequent White House meetings between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in search of peace in the Middle East.
"He blew his opportunity in 1999, 2000," Kerry said. "As far as I'm concerned, he's an outlaw to the peace process."
In the wide-ranging interview, Kerry touched on a variety of topics, including the contentious nature of the campaign against President Bush, foreign policy and his process for choosing a running mate.
Of the campaign against Bush, he said, "It's not personal."
"He's an enjoyable person to be with," Kerry said. "He's funny and so forth, but he doesn't keep his promises."
Kerry added: "It has nothing to do with him being a good man, bad man. I'm not here to judge him personally, that's up to other people, that's up to God."
In discussing foreign policy, the Massachusetts senator said he couldn't guarantee that Saddam Hussein would now be out of power in Iraq if he had been president over the past year.
"I can't tell you that," said Kerry, who faults Bush for not allowing continued U.N. inspections in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction Saddam was said to be hiding.
"If we had exhausted that process and built a legitimate coalition and Saddam Hussein had not complied, I would not have hesitated to march with that coalition against him," said Kerry. "You don't know how an appropriate global coalition with the proper amount of patience might have coerced him into a different set of behaviors."
Kerry, who was on the final day of a swing through the four Southern states that vote Tuesday, said the South has "changed dramatically" since the last election.
Al Gore, the nominee in 2000 and a native Tennessean, fared poorly in the region, which Kerry said was largely due to Gore's staunch support for gun control. A hunter and gun owner, Kerry said he expected to fare better.
Kerry also rejected suggestions that the gay marriage issue would be a potent weapon against him in the South. Kerry opposes same-sex marriage, but favors giving such couples certain rights. He also said he didn't think Bush's support for a constitutional amendment banning such unions would sell well in the South.
"The people of the South who are conservative would never want to disrespect the Constitution of the United States for wildly political purposes," Kerry said. He said economic issues will resonate more.
Kerry, meanwhile, said his former rivals have largely fallen into line and that he was meeting this week with Howard Dean and John Edwards, both of whom want to "be part of the team."
"I think our party is more united than it has been in years," he said.
Kerry declined to address any aspect of his search for a running mate. "I have not talked to anyone on my staff about this," he said. "I want to keep it personal and I want to keep it private."