NASHUA, N.H. -- Former House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt, back on the 2004 presidential campaign trail, is not bragging that he sided with President Bush in the debate on whether Iraq should have been invaded when it was by his limited "coalition of the willing."
Rather, the man who wants to replace Mr. Bush in the White House emphasized at a house party for him here the other day that he had reservations about Mr. Bush's dealings with the United Nations in the run-up to the war and how they may impair U.N. involvement in Iraq's reconstruction.
In his informal living-room talk, the Missouri Democratic congressman at one point went so far as to observe that "this president's foreign policy has been a failure." He faulted him for not enlisting more U.N. support for the war, for opposing the Kyoto treaty on global warming, for having "walked away" from a commitment to an international criminal court and for resisting for so long a peacekeeping role in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
In the 2004 primary marathon that begins in New Hampshire in January, no Democrat is going to enhance his chances for nomination by draping garlands over Mr. Bush for winning the Iraq war. While expressing how "proud and pleased with the performance of our young people" he was, Mr. Gephardt low-balled praise for the Republican president.
During questioning, a retired nurse from nearby Hollis, Claire Helfman, while not arguing against the war, expressed concerns about its fallout.
"We're probably paying for 80 percent of the war, and now we need to put Iraq back together again," she said. "And we don't have money to feed our own children and give them a good education. If you become president, you're going to inherit this because the money is going to be allocated for it [Iraqi aid]. I think it's a mess."
Mr. Gephardt replied that "one of the reasons that I pushed the president so hard to go to the U.N. starting a year ago" over Iraqi intransigence on weapons of mass destruction was to achieve a collective response. The implication was that had Mr. Bush persevered on a more multilateral approach, it would be easier now to enlist others to assist in the reconstruction of Iraq.
Nevertheless, the congressman did support Mr. Bush's decision to invade without a specific war resolution from the United Nations. And while that backing coincides with broad public support for the war, it does not sit so well with liberal activists in his party who strenuously opposed the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. Such Democrats can be expected to constitute a significant part of the primary election turnout next year, in New Hampshire as well as elsewhere.
Ms. Helfman said later that she didn't think Mr. Gephardt would be seriously impaired in the New Hampshire primary by such Democratic voters. Polls indicate criticism of the war has dropped off sharply since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, and she said, "I don't think the numbers who actually care will be large enough" to hurt him.
Mr. Gephardt, in an interview, said that while he believes any country has the right of self-defense, he was "not impressed or in agreement with" the so-called Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war "as major tenet of policy, because it can lead to some serious misunderstandings in the whole world about what we're about, what we're for and what we're likely to do. I say that with the understanding that any country has to retain the right to self-defense."
He said he will offer "in a few months" a foreign policy agenda of his own, and that he favors "a policy of engagement with other countries in the world to help achieve many of our foreign policy goals." From this, it's clear that Mr. Gephardt, after backing Mr. Bush on the war, is not of a mind simply to me-too him in this area.
Mr. Gephardt says Mr. Bush's political vulnerability now, in addition to the economy, is in not providing sufficient money for homeland security. But the problem for all Democratic presidential candidates, whether with or against Mr. Bush on going into Iraq, is challenging a president seen more than ever as a wartime leader warranting broad public support as the war on terrorism goes on.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.