Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) argued on Thursday that Americans face greater dangers because of the Bush administration's mishandling of Iraq and vowed that if elected president, he would "never let ideology trump the truth."
"They've made America less safe than we should be in a dangerous world," Kerry said as he began an 11-day campaign focus on national security. "In short, they have undermined the legacy of generations of American leadership.
Although Kerry's advisers promoted the speech as a major policy address, the Democrat did not stake new ground as he outlined positions he has taken on the campaign trail in recent months. He said he will provide details in the coming days.
The speech was designed to show that Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, would be strong in combatting terrorism and in his command of the military while confidence in Bush's leadership has softened amid increasing violence in Iraq.
"Everyone outside of this administration seems to understand that we're in deep trouble in Iraq," Kerry told an audience of 450 invited guests, including three of his former crewmates from Vietnam and former Democratic Sens. Gary Hart of Colorado and Max Cleland of Georgia.
Republicans portrayed the speech as disingenuous political grandstanding.
"These petty, hate-filled political attacks do not make America stronger or safer," Sen. George Allen (search), R-Va., chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (search), said in a conference call with reporters. "John Kerry and the Democrats are more worried about political attacks than prosecuting the war on terrorism."
Allen quipped that Kerry must have received advice from "the seemingly unstable" Al Gore, the former vice president who assailed President Bush and called for the resignations of top administration officials in a speech Wednesday.
Kerry said the administration has disregarded the advice of professional military officers and ended the careers of those who gave honest assessments at odds with the White House view.
"That is not the way to make the most solemn decisions of war and peace," Kerry said. "As president, I will seek out, listen to and respect the views of our experienced military leaders and I will never let ideology trump the truth."
Kerry laid out four principles that would guide his national security policy:
— New alliances with foreign countries;
— An updated military to meet terrorist threats;
— The use of diplomacy, intelligence, economic power and "the appeal of our values and ideas" to keep the country safe;
— Freedom from dependence on oil from the Middle East.
If elected, Kerry said he would send a message to the armed forces on his first day in office, promising to make them the "the best-led, best-equipped fighting force in the world."
"You will never be sent into harm's way without enough troops for the task," Kerry said, echoing a complaint of Army Gen. Eric Shinseki (search) and drawing some of the biggest applause of his speech. "And you will never be asked to fight a war without a plan to win the peace."
In February 2003, Shinseki, then the Army chief of staff, said several hundred thousand troops would have to stay in Iraq after the war. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told Congress that estimate was "way off the mark."
At an evening rally in Green Bay, Wis., with about 2,000 military veterans and their families, Kerry stood on a stage decorated with the green and gold of the Green Bay Packers across from the team's home stadium.
Looking ahead to November, Kerry said history has shown that when the Washington Redskins lose on the Sunday before the presidential election, the challenging candidate always wins. The Packers play the Redskins in the fall.
"On October 31, when the Redskins play against the Pack, you are looking at the biggest cheesehead in America right here," Kerry said as the crowd roared its approval at the suggestion of a Packers win.
Kerry's national security tour extends through Memorial Day and will end on the 60th anniversary of D-Day on June 6. He will make two more major speeches in West Palm Beach, Fla., on June 1, and Independence, Mo., on June 3, but also take his case to the battleground states of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio.