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Kerry says he would seek nations' input on Iraq

SPRING GREEN, Wis. -- Senator John F. Kerry set some new markers for his diplomatic skills yesterday, saying that as president he would immediately convene a summit of all European and Arab heads of state "to figure out how together we're going to assume the burdens" of Iraq and proposing that another country could provide a base for training Iraqi security forces.

Kerry, taking questions from an invitation-only audience of Wisconsin voters, said "cutting and running" in Iraq would never be an option if he is commander in chief.

He said his proposed summit also would include searching for common ground to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and cut off Arab support for terrorist groups.

Kerry drew a standing ovation when he hit back at critics of his decision to join the antiwar movement after returning from Vietnam.

"I fought for my country, and I volunteered to fight for my country, and when I came back I did what I thought was patriotic -- I volunteered to stand up and call it the way I saw it," Kerry said. "That's what I intend to do as president, ladies and gentlemen -- there's no value in running for president just to be there."

With two new polls yesterday indicating that more respondents said they trust President Bush to manage Iraq -- and indicating that the president holds a lead of at least 6 percentage points over Kerry -- the Democratic nominee has been hammering Bush over Iraq almost daily. Kerry advisers are convinced that the anti-American insurgency in Iraq represents the greatest threat to Bush's reelection.

But the polls also indicate that Kerry has the most at stake going into the Thursday debate with Bush. The USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll of likely voters gave Bush an edge for the first time on handling the economy, while the ABC News/ Washington Post poll indicated that a plurality of likely voters -- 42 percent to 37 percent -- said they have a negative impression of Kerry.

Yesterday, the Bush campaign staged a counterattack to Kerry's criticisms over Iraq. Former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was dispatched to this rural town in southwestern Wisconsin, where Kerry is preparing for the debate, to make the oft-heard Republican argument that Kerry has changed his position on Iraq -- nine times in the last two years, by Giuliani's count.

During a 30-minute news conference with political reporters who cover Kerry, Giuliani portrayed the Democrat as a phony whose views have changed with his poll ratings -- prowar when he was tied or ahead of Bush, "antiwar" now that he is down.

Giuliani also mocked Kerry for having mixed up the names of Red Sox players David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez earlier this summer. "Some of these things give you a pretty good idea of who's real and who isn't," Giuliani said. "I know President Bush, and he may not be a champion debater, like John Kerry, but he sure is real."

Giuliani also compared Kerry unfavorably with two other senators, Republican John S. McCain and Democrat Edward M. Kennedy, saying those men showed far greater consistency than Kerry in their views on the war.

"John Kerry has changed his position more often than just about any American politician on very important matters of war and peace," Giuliani said. "And that's the damaging part -- the truth ultimately ends up being the most damaging thing in politics."

Separately yesterday, in an interview with MSNBC, Kennedy -- a close Kerry ally and adviser -- accused Vice President Dick Cheney of "McCarthyism of the first order" when Cheney suggested that the nation would be at greater risk of a terrorist attack if Kerry is elected president. During a speech at George Washington University, too, Kennedy sought to link the turmoil in Iraq with Al Qaeda's interest in obtaining a nuclear weapon.

"A mushroom cloud over any American city is the ultimate nightmare, and the risk is all too real," Kennedy said. "The war in Iraq has made the mushroom cloud more likely -- not less likely -- and it should never have happened."

The Bush campaign hit back swiftly. "Having Ted Kennedy argue that we are now more vulnerable to nuclear attack just shows how far John Kerry is willing to take his political opportunism and scare tactics," campaign spokesman Brian Jones said in a statement.

The Kerry and Bush camps also traded volleys in new television commercials, with the Republican side announcing a spot called "Searching" that included six contrasting statements by Kerry on Iraq -- including his remark in May 2003 that the "winning of the war was brilliant." Kerry advisers said the comments were taken out of context; Kerry made the "brilliant" comment, for instance, to contrast the swift war victory with the difficulty of security.

Kerry's new ad, meanwhile, paraphrased Ronald Reagan, saying of Bush, "There he goes again," in reference to the president's statement in an interview on FOX News that he did not regret flying to the USS Lincoln in May 2003 and declaring an end to major combat in Iraq under a "Mission Accomplished" banner.

As he took a break from his four-day prep sessions for the debate, Kerry also seemed to be using the town hall meeting here to test new lines for his first debate with Bush.

At one point he said he was offering "short and straight and simple" ideas instead of "fancy talk." After recounting his fights against Republicans to protect the environment, Kerry offered a new defense of his 19-year record in the US Senate.

"You're not always measured by the things that you have a bill named after you for -- sometimes you're measured by stopping really bad things from happening, like when I stood up and helped stop Ronald Reagan's illegal war in Central America," Kerry said.

Kerry also spoke on some Midwestern concerns, saying he would fight for the interests of dairy farmers and quoting a Washington newsletter that suggested Bush was playing politics with dairy policy by delaying harmful changes until after the election.

Patrick Healy can be reached at phealy@globe.com.

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