WASHINGTON -- A year after failing to convince most voters that Democrats can protect the United States, party leaders yesterday issued the outlines of a new national security message built on plans to reduce US troops in Iraq and sharply increase security spending at home.
In his first major foreign policy address since losing his White House bid, Senator John F. Kerry called on President Bush to bring home 20,000 US troops from Iraq after the country votes on a National Assembly in December, adding that ''the goal should be to withdraw the bulk of American combat forces by the end of next year."
''We must move aggressively to reduce popular support for the insurgency fed by the perception of American occupation," Kerry said.
Separately, Clinton administration secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright delivered a report to top Democratic congressional leaders calling for a 50 percent increase in federal spending on homeland security, the creation of a domestic intelligence agency, and a Cabinet-level ranking for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
''We are all looking at the Iraq issue, how to make America safe and not leave the situation in complete chaos," Albright added, echoing many of Kerry's themes. ''The Democrats are basically supportive of the troops. We would like to see an Iraq that is stable and relatively democratic."
The Republican National Committee immediately denounced the Democrats as a ''party of 'retreat and defeat' with a newfound interest in addressing the war on terror, President Bush's top priority for years."
And a senior White House official said Kerry's withdrawal plan would make Iraq more dangerous for citizens and US troops. ''The troop withdrawal needs to be tied to order and stability, not simply to political benchmarks," this official said. ''The political track, while vital, can't by itself defeat the insurgents."
As the one-year anniversary of their election defeat approaches next week, Democrats are trying to find resonant themes on national security. While Bush's approval ratings are at a record low, polls indicate that the Democratic Party is not reaping the benefits.
''The good news [for Republicans] is that Democrats don't have their act together," said GOP pollster Edward J. Rollins. ''But there is an energy there, and Democrats are seeing a unique opportunity."
During last year's presidential election, Kerry's stance on the Iraq war -- crafted after he supported a resolution to give the president war authority but voted against funding -- was criticized as muddled and confused.
Since his loss, Kerry -- who is considering another presidential bid in 2008 -- has become an increasingly harsh critic of the war, a side of the Vietnam veteran that was much on display yesterday in a speech to students at Georgetown University.
''History will judge the invasion of Iraq as one of the greatest foreign policy misadventures of all time," he said.
But later, during a question and answer session, Kerry resisted comparisons to the Vietnam War, and said he told US troops in Iraq that ''their cause is noble" in risking their lives as Iraq stumbles toward democracy.
Within the Democratic Party, lawmakers to the left of Kerry and Albright have called for more immediate action to end the US presence in Iraq.
This week, US Representative James P. McGovern, Democrat of Worcester, said he will introduce legislation to prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to deploy US troops to Iraq. McGovern said his bill supports the ''safe and orderly withdrawal" of the troops, with transitional security provided by other countries and international agencies.
Kerry emphasized that his own withdrawal plan would not be tied to a timetable but rather to ''benchmarks" as the United States cedes military and political control to the Iraqi people.
''A precipitous withdrawal would invite civil and regional chaos and endanger our own security," Kerry said. ''But to those who rely on the overly simplistic phrase 'we will stay as long as it takes,' who pretend this is primarily a war against Al Qaeda, and who offer halting, sporadic, diplomatic engagement, I also say: 'No, that will only lead us into a quagmire.' "
While the Iraq war is unpopular with the public, Democratic politicians have been caught between centrist desires to project a strong national security presence, in Iraq as well as elsewhere, and vocal, well-funded leftist activists in the party who want the United States out immediately.
Kerry is not the only national figure facing this squeeze. Earlier in the week, antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan told the Associated Press that New York voters should not support Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton in her reelection bid next year.
''I believe that any candidate who supports the war should not receive our support," Sheehan told the AP. ''It doesn't matter if they're Senator Clinton or whoever."
Nationally, Democrats also have to confront their past positions on Iraq. Before the 2003 invasion, some Democratic leaders believed -- as the White House did -- that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, which were never found. Both Albright and Kerry accused the Bush administration of misleading them in the run-up to the war.
Speaking at a breakfast session with reporters, Albright asserted that members of Congress ''were not given all the facts." She added that by ''deduction" rather than direct evidence, ''I believed there were weapons of mass destruction. But I did not believe they posed an imminent threat."