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The war will be a key issue for Kerry's election campaign. Just don't expect him to apologize for supporting it.

The biggest political tightrope of the political campaign concerns Democrats hoping to make points over the Bush administration's attack on Iraq even though the Democrats voted for the president's plan.

Nonetheless, the war in Iraq will be a top issue driving this year's national elections.

But don't expect any of the Democrats to say they are sorry they backed the 2003 war.

Instead, they will leave the attacks to others.

Like former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., one of the spokesmen for John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who says Bush "flat-out lied" to Congress to get the green light for war.

Bush went to war "because he concluded his daddy was a failed president and one of the ways he failed was that he did not take out Saddam Hussein," said Cleland, who lost both legs in Vietnam. Cleland is scheduled to introduce Kerry for his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention here Thursday night.

Or like celebrities in Manhattan's Radio City Music Hall who sharply criticized the war three weeks ago during a fund-raiser that took in $7.5 million for Kerry's campaign.

But Kerry's official stance remains the same.

"John Kerry does not believe it was a mistake to vote for a resolution to hold Saddam (Hussein) accountable," Kerry spokesman Phil Singer said.

Kerry "is glad Saddam is gone," Singer added.

Then what is Kerry opposing?

"What was a mistake was the way the president went ahead with this war, with no allies and no plan to win the peace. The issue going forward is how to achieve security in Iraq and relieve the burden on U.S. troops," Singer said. "The president has yet to lay out a viable plan for doing so."

Lack of a distinct policy

On Kerry's convention Web site his "Iraq Plan for Peace" ranks seventh among issues facing the country, behind jobs and health care. Kerry's plan differs little from Bush's -- widening the coalition behind the new provisional Iraq government and creating a NATO mission for Iraq.

But Kerry's approach has made some likely sympathizers impatient over what they view as hair-splitting.

"Kerry has never come up with a good story on this," said Elizabeth Sanders, a Cornell University analyst who describes herself as a progressive.

Given disclosures that the Bush administration's claims regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq were misleading, those who supported the war should have regrets, said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, who voted against the resolution.

"They should all be sorry they voted for the war," Slaughter said.

But that's not the case. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who in her October 2002 speech supported the war resolution, said her vote in favor was merely a continuation of her husband's policies. Now she voices the formula in the fewest words:

"I do not regret my vote to grant President Bush the authority for military action in Iraq," she said in a prepared statement released through her spokesman Joe Householder. "I regret the way he used that authority."

But in a speech in California a month ago Clinton characterized Bush's planning for the Iraq occupation as "a combination of naivete and incompetence."

So, for Democrats who voted for war, going to war cannot be the main issue, according to many Republicans and Democratic analysts.

"Democrats are going to have a hard time using the decision to go to war against the president because of their own votes," said Canisius College political scientist Michael Haselswerdt, who often sides with Democrats.

Instead, the way the Republican president handled the war will be the main issue, said University at Buffalo political scientist James E. Campbell.

"The Democrats are saying we would have done a better job of it," said Campbell, who leans right politically.

Staying the course

Will that be a strong enough stand to capture the White House?

"It worked for Nixon," Campbell said of Richard M. Nixon's first successful presidential campaign during the Vietnam War.

After winning the presidential race in 1968 criticizing the Democrats' handling of the Vietnam War, Nixon continued it another four years.

Like Cleland, other Democrats are maintaining a steady drumbeat of criticism of Bush's overall handling of war and terrorism.

"We are not safer in my judgment than we were four years ago," said Sandy Berger, who was President Bill Clinton's national security adviser and Kerry's foreign policy consultant until a few days ago.

"We've unilaterally invaded Iraq and stirred up a hornets' nest, which has created turmoil around the world," Berger said in an interview before he withdrew from the campaign because of an investigation over his apparent removal of classified documents from the National Archives.

Still, his message becomes less clear in other forums.

In a nationally broadcast interview, Berger said the United States is obligated to maintain a military force in Iraq until the nation is stabilized.

"We can't just pull out," said Berger, who was chief military and diplomatic adviser when Clinton ordered the bombing of Iraq in 1998.

Seven House Democrats calling themselves "Iraq Watch" stage floor discussions to highlight Bush's inconsistencies about his reasons for going to war.

"It is relevant to remind ourselves that the very people who made such blunders of judgment, who promoted war based on false assumptions, they are the people still in charge," said Rep. Ted Strickland, D-Ohio.

Retiring Rep. Amo Houghton, R-Corning, who voted against the resolution still thinks Bush's decision to go into Iraq "was nuts."

Houghton also thinks that Kerry's posture on the Iraq war is "absolutely cynical and totally political" because Kerry wants to harvest anti-war reactions while also wanting to appear like a patriotic Vietnam War veteran.

Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, R-Clarence, who voted with the House majority for the war, declined to be interviewed.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., says he does not regret his "yes" vote on Iraq.

Nonetheless, he thinks Vice President Cheney should apologize for continuing to say Saddam had links with al-Qaida that led to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

After a 9/1 1 Commission staff report said there was no evidence of a "collaborative relationship" leading to 9/1 1 between Saddam and al-Qaida, Cheney persisted in saying there was.

Days later, the commission chairman, Republican Thomas Kean and co-chairman, Democrat Lee Hamilton, rebuked Cheney, saying he had the "same information" that the commission had.

Retiring Rep. Jack F. Quinn, R-Hamburg, who voted for war, says the president's action was justified as an act "against terrorism."

Bureau assistant Breann Howell contributed to this report.


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