DAVENPORT, IOWA — DAVENPORT, Iowa - John Kerry is standing in front of a big, enthusiastic Democratic crowd at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds, and he is enjoying the chance to pummel George W. Bush.
"He said he wants to send Americans to Mars, and I've got a better idea," he says with a mischievous smile. The crowd roars, expecting the obvious punch line. "No, that's not what I'm thinking. I'm thinking, why can't he find a way to bring Americans back from Iraq?"
Iraq and other defense issues are among the top campaign priorities of the Massachusetts senator, and he is pounding on them today. "We shouldn't be opening firehouses in Baghdad while we're shutting them in the United States," says Mr. Kerry, a Vietnam veteran. "If George Bush wants national security to be the centerpiece of this campaign, I have three words for him that I know he understands: Bring it on!"
In many ways, Mr. Kerry is the perfect Democrat to make the case against Mr. Bush's handling of our biggest foreign policy crisis. As a Navy lieutenant, he earned multiple decorations for his actions under fire. In one ambush, Mr. Kerry spurned retreat and veered toward the attacker, beaching his boat and personally shooting a Viet Cong guerrilla. His gamble saved his crew but caused a superior to say, half in jest, that he didn't know whether Mr. Kerry should be given a medal or a court-martial - before recommending him for a Silver Star.
His record gave him special stature as an opponent of the war. As a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Mr. Kerry helped organize a protest in Washington in 1971 and went before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to pose an unforgettable question: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
That same question could be asked today about Iraq, and Mr. Kerry is ideally positioned to ask it. Except for one thing: He supported the congressional resolution authorizing Mr. Bush to use military force against Saddam Hussein.
So Democrats looking for an antiwar candidate had to look elsewhere, and they alighted on Howard Dean. Had Mr. Kerry been willing to stand firmly against the war from the start, Dr. Dean might now be contemplating the pleasures of practicing medicine full time.
That's why Mr. Kerry makes such a point of criticizing the administration for what it's done in Iraq. A voter who attended rallies for both men, in fact, might conclude that Mr. Kerry was the chief critic of the war.
Dr. Dean, having established his bona fides on Iraq, doesn't belabor the subject. Instead, he declares his support for a strong military and the unapologetic use of American power where necessary. He regularly notes that he supported the first Persian Gulf war and the invasion of Afghanistan, and he opposes any cut in the defense budget.
In this way, he reassures voters who worry that the Democrats are soft on defense, but without having to worry about alienating antiwar activists, who know he is on their side. Mr. Kerry has to voice his disapproval of the war now precisely because he didn't do it sooner.
Those combat credentials, meanwhile, have been less of an asset than Mr. Kerry might have supposed. Once retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark entered the race, Democrats yearning for a man with an impressive military rM-isumM-i had another option.
Bill Merrill, who is in Iowa doing volunteer work for Dr. Dean, crystallizes the senator's problems. "If you'd asked me a year and a half ago who I was for, I'd have said Kerry," says Mr. Merrill, a lawyer from Appleton, Maine. "When he voted to support the war, that ended it for me. I'm convinced he knew it wasn't the right thing and he cast a political vote. Kerry is trying to turn his position on the war into what he should have done, and people are confused about him. But when the moment to be tested came, he wasn't in the right place."
It's not hard to figure out why so many of the Democrats in this race voted for the Iraq resolution. If the war went well, as the first gulf war did, opposition would be fatal for any Democrat running for the White House. What they didn't anticipate was that it would not go so well.
Now, Mr. Kerry is left to explain why he didn't vote against the war, while legions flock to Dr. Dean in anger over Iraq. Opposing the war early was a huge risk. But Dr. Dean has confirmed what Lieutenant Kerry discovered in Vietnam: Fortune favors the bold.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.