Friday 4 April 2003
WASHINGTON -- Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry lashed out at top congressional Republicans on Friday after they assailed him for saying the United States, like Iraq, needs a regime change.
"The Republicans have tried to make a practice of attacking anybody who speaks out strongly by questioning their patriotism," the Massachusetts senator said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "I refuse to have my patriotism or right to speak out questioned. I fought for and earned the right to express my views in this country."
Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, backed a congressional resolution last fall giving President Bush the authority to use force to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, but he repeatedly has criticized the president for failing to give diplomacy more time.
In a speech Wednesday in Peterborough, N.H., Kerry said Bush so alienated allies prior to the U.S.-led war against Iraq that only a new president can rebuild damaged relationships with other countries.
"What we need now is not just a regime change in Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but we need a regime change in the United States," Kerry said.
Several leading Republicans said Kerry's comments were inappropriate with U.S. troops fighting in Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said the statement amounted to "petty, partisan insults launched solely for personal political gain."
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, called Kerry's words "desperate and inappropriate." Said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., "Once this war is over, there will be plenty of time for the next election."
Kerry dismissed the attacks, telling an Atlanta political gathering Thursday that patriotism is not mutually exclusive with questioning the war. One day later, he delivered an even sharper rebuke to the GOP complaints.
"If they want to pick a fight, they've picked a fight with the wrong guy," Kerry said in a telephone interview.
The lawmaker said this round of charges and countercharges is not the first time Republicans have made a "phony issue of patriotism." He cited last year's campaign against former Georgia Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in the Vietnam War.
As part of a broader GOP campaign, Bush and other Republicans criticized Senate Democrats for holding up legislation to create a Department of Homeland Security over a labor provision, suggesting that the delay reflected weakness on national security. Republican Saxby Chambliss unseated the first-term Cleland in the November elections.
"I watched what they did to Max Cleland last year," Kerry said. "Shame on them for doing it then and shame on them for trying to do it now."
Kerry also mentioned recent GOP criticism of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., who said Bush's diplomatic efforts had failed "miserably" because he didn't secure a U.N. resolution for the war.
Following a speech to the New York State United Teachers convention in Washington, Kerry said, "I'm not going to let the likes of Tom DeLay question my patriotism, which I fought for and bled for in order to have the right to speak out."
Neither Hastert, Frist nor DeLay served in the military. In response to Kerry, DeLay spokesman Jonathan Grella said, "There's a difference between loving your country and leading it. Demanding regime change in America isn't unpatriotic -- it's vile."
Kerry said Republicans have no right to criticize him when they are cutting funds to veterans hospitals.
Kerry's comments come on the eve of a trip to Iowa, where rival Howard Dean's strong anti-war stance has played well with the state's Democrats. Dean also has been critical of Bush and Kerry, suggesting that the senator waffled in his position on the Iraq war.
Dean also addressed the New York Teachers group Friday and said although he probably would not have used the words that Kerry did, "I have not criticized Senator Kerry for that, nor am I going to.
"It certainly would be unusual for me to line up with Tom DeLay, and I don't intend to start now," said the former Vermont governor.
Kerry's arrival on Sunday in Iowa also comes as another presidential primary rival, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, takes part in a town-hall meeting.
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