Howard Dean would be "eviscerated" by President Bush's re-election team next year if Dean emerges as the Democratic Party's nominee for the White House, chiefly because of the former Vermont governor's "enormous deficit" of experience in national security and military affairs, Senator John F. Kerry said yesterday. These comments are the strongest Kerry has made in conveying that Dean would lose to Bush, an argument that has become a tacit theme of Kerry's own candidacy as he struggles to surmount Dean's double-digit lead in New Hampshire polls before the primary there Jan. 27.
Accusing Bush of conducting "the most inept, reckless, arrogant, ideological foreign policy in modern history," Kerry told a group of Globe reporters and editors that the Democrats needed a nominee with Kerry's blend of military experience and foreign affairs mastery in the Senate to defeat Bush.
"If 9/11 has taught us anything and George Bush has taught us anything, it is that this is not the moment for on-the-job training in the conduct of foreign affairs, international security affairs, and military affairs of our country," Kerry said.
Kerry also said that if if he had been the president dealing with Saddam Hussein last year, he would have asked the US Senate to authorize possible military action against Iraq as a tactic to pressure Hussein to accept United Nations weapons inspections. Kerry voted for such a Senate resolution sought by Bush in October 2002, angering many Democrats who have now flocked to Dean's anti-war banner. Kerry said he would not have used the resolution to go to war as Bush had, but rather pursue further diplomacy to isolate Hussein.
Touting his own relationships with foreign governments, Kerry disclosed that he was recently told that French President Jacques Chirac is willing to assist with the occupation of Iraq, and Chirac has even signaled a willingness to send French troops to Iraq.
"I've talked with a friend of mine who was in Paris the other day who was meeting with President Chirac at length, exploring some ideas, and the clear conclusion was that there is a place where the president is prepared to be involved and even perhaps put troops on the ground," Kerry said.
Pressed, Kerry refused to identify the friend who spoke with Chirac, or offer further details. "I don't want to drag the president of France into this presidential race."
Kerry predicted that Bush's campaign will launch "withering attacks on patriotism and security" against his Democratic opponent, and argued that he is best positioned to defeat that strategy with his own background as a decorated Vietnam War veteran.
"President Bush went to the Rose Garden three weeks ago and said the central issue in this campaign is preemption, terror, security," Kerry said. "I think somebody without any military or international experience will be eviscerated by these guys."
Several minutes later, referring to Dean, Kerry added: "I think that my principal opponent in New Hampshire begins with an enormous deficit -- both on security as well as on which position is which position."
Picking up another recent line of attack, Kerry argued that Dean had supported a combination of diplomacy and possible military force in Iraq in 2002 at the same time that Kerry voted for the Senate resolution allowing for both.
Kerry also added, "If any person in this table believes we would be at war today in Iraq if I were president, you shouldn't support me," saying he had urged Bush before the war to build a coalition for military action in Iraq and not "rush" into battle.
A few minutes later Kerry clarified his remark, saying that "there wouldn't have been a war in Iraq the way we went to war. If I had gone to war, it would have been making real the promises of this president," such as exhausting diplomatic options and building support among Americans and an international coalition.
Kerry said the outbreak of war in March 2003 hurt his campaign as he found himself offering lengthy explanations about his stand on the war, in contrast to Dean's fiery opposition to it that excited many Democrats.
Kerry also attacked Dean's support of rolling back the tax cuts supported by the Bush administration, arguing that the effect would be increasing taxes on many middle-class voters. "It means the Democratic Party is going to be out there saying to America, here we come again -- get married in America, we're going to tax you, because we're reinstating the marriage penalty," Kerry said. Kerry, who turned 60 yesterday, choked up when recalling the death of his mother last year, followed by his own discovery that he had prostate cancer. But Kerry said that his two tours of duty had prepared him for life's painful moments, saying he told himself, "every day is extra," an expression he cited as common among Vietnam veterans.
Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com.