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SCOT LEHIGH

John Kerry's encore

JOHN KERRY may just be charting his path back to the future.

The man who cast a vote he now acknowledges was a mistake on the Iraq war resolution, and then spent two years awkwardly confronting the fallout as he ran for president, has finally come to a position where he seems comfortable.

Kerry's call for a near-withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by year's end has made headlines. Less noticed is that his new stand puts Kerry back where he first made his name during the Vietnam War: as a voice of the anti-war left.

Whereas Kerry's 2002 vote made him the object of suspicion among anti-war Democrats, who flocked to Howard Dean until that candidacy collapsed, Kerry's new stance places him to the left of the Democratic Party's other major putative presidential candidates. Certainly he has flanked New York Senator Hillary Clinton, widely considered the Democratic front-runner in 2008.

Kerry's proposal calls for a Dayton Accords-like conference, to include the various Iraqi factions, the League of Arab States, Iran, Syria, and the rest of Iraq's neighbors (among others), to try to forge a consensus on Iraq's future; a redeployment of US troops to support roles; and then a withdrawal of US combat troops by year's end.

The senator, who used the weekend announcement of Iraq's new government to highlight his plan again yesterday, says he's trying to offer the country an alternative -- one he will soon present as a Senate amendment to the defense budget.

``It is not going to pass, and I understand that," Kerry said in a Friday interview. ``The purpose of it is to point out to the country that there really is a different way to approach Iraq and to protect American troops and our interests."

The Bush administration, of course, is highly unlikely to adopt his blueprint. If not, ``they will be morally bankrupt for creating a Vietnam II decent-interval withdrawal situation or a stay-the-course policy," Kerry said. ``Either way, it is a loss for the United States of America. It is unacceptable both morally and practically."

US forces in Iraq are not fighting traditional battles with enemy forces, Kerry notes. ``The two biggest killers in Iraq are IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and suicide bombers," he said. ``Are you telling me, three-and-a-half years into this, that you can't have Iraqis driving down the street instead of American soldiers . . . or going out on some of those patrols?"

Kerry acknowledges that if US troops did withdraw, there's a risk that Iraq, which he judges already in a low-grade civil war, would descend into chaos. But that ultimately depends on the Iraqis themselves, he says.

Asked about the political implications, Kerry, who acknowledges he's ``looking hard" at running for president again in 2008 (and whose confidants fully expect a second campaign), says he'll leave that discussion to others.

``I am where my conscience tells me and my mind tells me the best solution to this is," he says. ``If you do this pressure, and you have this summit, you have a chance of getting some kind of a stake hold that resolves this. If you don't, you are going to find yourself in the quagmire and failure mode anyway."

But nothing in public life is ever really divorced from political considerations, and certainly nothing as charged as Iraq. Although some have written Kerry off as a delusional Democratic dinosaur who doesn't realize his time as a serious presidential candidate has come and gone, that actually gives him short shrift.

Kerry wouldn't begin a 2008 campaign as the front-runner, certainly, but neither would he be a laughingstock.

If Al Gore doesn't run, Kerry would start in a position analogous to that which Richard Nixon occupied on the Republican side in the run-up to the 1968 campaign. That is, hardly the favorite, but nevertheless an experienced, acceptable alternative should the early preference (George Romney for the GOP then, Hillary Clinton for Democrats in 2008) falter.

Further, Kerry's new position on Iraq would likely add some energy to an encore effort, perhaps letting him play a 2008 version of Howard Dean to Hillary Clinton's John Kerry. Indeed, Kerry is busy visiting college campuses, where the youthful campaign energy is often found.

If nothing else, at a time when many major Democrats have adopted a cautious wait-and-see posture on Iraq, a posture that has proved frustrating to the party's liberal activists, John Kerry has finally found his voice.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.

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