Is Iraq a Winning Issue for John Kerry?

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, April 14, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We shouldn't only be tough. We have to be smart. And there's a smarter way to accomplish this mission than this president is pursuing.


JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Or so he says. John Kerry (search) unloading on President Bush saying the president's strategy in Iraq is costing us money and maybe even lives. Can Kerry explain how he would do things any better? Let's ask political analyst Jennifer Donahue how voters see Kerry as a potential commander in chief. She joins me from Boston. Jennifer, the big question — is Iraq a winning issue for John Kerry?

JENNIFER DONAHUE, ST. ANSELM COLLEGE: Iraq is a tough issue for John Kerry. You would think as a Vietnam veteran it would be simple for him, that he could come in, criticize - fine points to criticize Bush on, but it's political dynamite. He has to be very careful. I would say right now he's being too careful, too cautious. Where he sees openings, he has to articulate them. He did the press conference ...

GIBSON: Let's go over something that he said today that just stuck out like a giant sore thumb. He said the president has to essentially turn Iraq over to the U.N. It has to be internationalized. At the same time, Kofi Annan (search) is saying, we're not going into Iraq. We wouldn't touch it with a 10-foot pole.

DONAHUE: Exactly.

GIBSON: Doesn't Kerry look as though he hasn't connected the dots when he says Iraq has to be U.N. property and the U.N. says we don't want it?

DONAHUE: I think so. And I think the U.S. will not buy the argument that it's that easy to just shift power to the U.N. or that the U.N. is necessarily capable of leading what is now a very, very messy reconstruction battle. The bottom line is that Kerry voted to go to war in Iraq. He should have asked these questions before the engagement began. Many senators should have asked more questions. If they wanted to know what the entry, middle and exit strategies were, they needed to ask that. If there were deadlines that needed to be set, objectives that needed to be spelled out, none of that was spelled out. The president got a blank check to do it. Kerry then voted against the $87 billion and that's his biggest problem is that he voted yes for the war and no for the support. And now he's in the position of having to say, I support the troops, but I didn't support them financially. It's a very, very awkward spot.

GIBSON: The other thing that he did is he wrote an Iraq strategy piece for "The Washington Post" a day or two ago. And in the middle of it, he said, what the United states should do now, what President Bush should do or what he would do is make a promise up front right now that the United States will accept any plan that the U.N. devises with whatever governing council seems to be in charge of Iraq at the time. Now, does that sound like a wise way to get this monkey off our back or does that sound like capitulation?

DONAHUE: I think it's fair to say that if the U.N. were capable and willing to take this operation over they would have done it a long time ago. And that if we were going to have more allies than we have right now, it had to be negotiated months and months ago.

GIBSON: But, Kerry — the part that I'm hung up on, Jennifer, is that Kerry says that the United States should say before it knows what kind of U.N. plan the U.N. devises, or knows who the U.N. would be working with, whether its governing council or anyone else, that we will accept, the United States will accept anything they come up with. That struck me as odd.

DONAHUE: I think that is odd. I think the problem is that Kerry is having trouble articulating either what he really means or coming up with a plan of his own. And if he is going to say that there needs to be a U.N. plan, he's running for president. He wants to be commander-in-chief. He should spell out the plan he thinks the U.N. should follow. He should spell out how he thinks Bush should get us out of Iraq now. He should spell out the transition of power. It's one thing to stand back and criticize. It's another to be proactive and say, I have a vision. Here's what it is. Why isn't the president doing this? Until Kerry can articulate a vision of his own, I think it looks political. He stayed back from criticizing Bush because it appears political. It only gets worse for Kerry if he cannot spell out exactly how he would do it under similar circumstances.

GIBSON: But on the other hand, has his criticism been so loud that he has inserted himself into the problem or is he really hanging on the sidelines?

DONAHUE: I think he's hung on the sidelines. I think Kerry's gotten a slow start. Bush is campaigning harder than Kerry is during this general election cycle. And Kerry doesn't have the luxury he had during the primaries, where if he was doing badly in New Hampshire, he could switch resources and focus to Iowa. This is a full-frontal attack from both men. They have to address every issue in real-time, in rapid response, effectively or they start to lose traction. If Kerry loses traction, he doesn't only have Dean to beat down. He has Bush, $180 million and the powers of incumbency to try to erode by November. That's a tall order. He's got to do it now and come out fighting.

GIBSON: Political analyst Jennifer Donahue. Jennifer, thank you very much for your observation.

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