BOSTON – John Kerry (search) is caught in a political quagmire: How do you criticize the Bush administration's policy in Iraq without undermining the American troops fighting — and losing their lives — there?
With the Democratic presidential nomination locked up, Kerry is adjusting his message for a general-election campaign rather than a primary effort aimed at die-hard Democrats who are vehemently anti-war.
Yet Kerry does not want to appear to be speaking against U.S. forces when he contends, as he did Tuesday in Rhode Island, "The way the president went about this was more than a mistake, in the sense that the president broke promises. ... He promised he would go to war as a last resort. He broke every one of those promises."
Kerry wrote in a column for The Washington Post that he is committed to building a stable government in Iraq — even increasing U.S. troops if necessary — but chided Bush for failing to gather the international support needed to make the country more secure and gain the trust of the Iraqi people.
"Because of the way the White House has run the war, we are left with the United States bearing most of the costs and risks associated with every aspect of the Iraqi transition," Kerry wrote. "We have lost lives, time, momentum and credibility. And we are seeing increasing numbers of Iraqis lashing out at the United States to express their frustration over what the Bush administration has and hasn't done."
Kerry continued that line Tuesday night, complaining that Bush failed to explain how he would stabilize Iraq when he met with reporters at the White House in a prime-time news conference that dealt heavily with the war.
"We need to set a new course in Iraq," Kerry said in a statement.
While they don't make up a majority of the electorate, Democratic activists are a key financial and political base for Kerry. If he appears too supportive of the war, his base vote turns surly. At the same time, being rabidly anti-war risks turning off swing voters likely to decide a close election.
"The problem in general in politics when a candidate choses to be critical of something happening internationally is it can be seen as not supporting the troops or being weak internationally," Michigan State University political science professor David Rohde said. "He's got to worry that his criticism is being taken as a lack of support for the troops."
In a nod to that sentiment, Kerry always opens his remarks with praise for American troops in Iraq.
When students at the University of New Hampshire on Monday asked Kerry to explain his Iraq positions, his responses reflected subtle if important distinctions with Bush policies rather than direct opposition.
For instance, Kerry told them Bush should involve other countries in the war, but said he would leave the United States in charge of military operations. Although he was critical of an "arbitrary" June 30 deadline to turn over authority in the country, he said he would support the move because of increasing restiveness in Iraq over the U.S. occupation.
"I think it was a mistake to set an arbitrary deadline because the measurement is the stability of Iraq," Kerry told the students. "Now the date has somewhat taken hold in Iraq."
Jeffrey Goldfarb, with the New School for Social Research in New York, said part of the problem Kerry faces is that his position on the war is not easy to explain.
"I think Kerry has some inconsistencies," Goldfarb said. "He appears to be on both sides of the issue. He recognizes some justification for the war, but is deeply critical of the way the war has been carried out."
Complicating Kerry's rhetorical mission is his own record: He voted against the 1991 Gulf War, voted in 1992 to authorize the first President Bush to use force in Iraq, then voted last year against spending an additional $87 billion on the war. Not only must he take time to explain why he believes these positions are not contradictory, Kerry has left himself open to charges from Republicans that he's trying to have it both ways on the war.
And there are occasional gaffes. Last week, Kerry referred to the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as a "legitimate voice" in Iraq during an interview on National Public Radio. "Well, let me change the term legitimate," Kerry quickly added, noting that al-Sadr had taken on a far more radical tone and aligned himself with terrorist efforts.
But conservative talk shows already had all they needed to question why Kerry would sound supportive of the man at the center of the deadliest fighting since major combat ended nearly a year ago.
Critics of the Massachusetts senator still point to his confusing declaration to an audience in West Virginia that "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it." The single sentence is easier to remember than Kerry's explanation that he supported an amendment tying the funding to a repeal of tax cuts but then voted against the bill because he didn't support the president's overall plan.
Within hours, the quote was in a Bush campaign ad that labeled Kerry as someone not to be trusted to stick to his word. Bush himself has cited the remark in campaign speeches, reading the quote aloud and then declaring, "That sure clears things up, doesn't it?"
For Bush, his worries are less about Kerry's rhetoric than what appears to be a deteriorating situation in Iraq, said Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.
"By and large this is going to be a referendum on those policies," Gans said. "Right now those policies don't look very good."