WASHINGTON - At the last presidential debate, John Kerry was asked about his Senate vote giving President Bush authority to invade Iraq. Did he feel any responsibility for the costs and casualties of the war?
Kerry offered a longwinded explanation, prompting his rival, Sen. John Edwards, to land a not-so-gentle punch at the front-runner: "That's the longest answer I ever heard to a yes-or-no question."
From the start of his presidential bid, Kerry has struggled to reconcile his vote in favor of the war with his caustic attacks on Bush's decision to use force. Questions about his vote have trailed Kerry from town hall meetings to debates, even past a string of victory nights.
Now that question is serving to highlight his varying positions on Iraq through the years, and Republicans are seizing on that record to accuse the senator of having an inconsistent, even incoherent, policy on Iraq.
At the heart of the debate are three seemingly conflicting votes: Kerry's 1991 vote against the Persian Gulf war, his 2002 vote to give Bush authority to invade Iraq, and his 2003 vote opposing the president's request for $87 billion for reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The senator has explained them all individually, to the satisfaction of many Democratic primary voters.
He has said he voted for the 2002 war resolution based on intelligence about Iraqi weapons that now seems to have been wrong and based on the belief that Bush would go to war only as a last resort.
Yet together - and in light of his condemnations of the war (he has since called the war "a miscalculation of colossal proportions") - Kerry's votes have raised questions about his overall vision on Iraq.
"Does it look like a coherent foreign policy? No," says Thomas Mann, a political fellow at the Brookings Institution. "His explanations sound a little lame."
But Mann and others say it's not reasonable to expect a politician's record to align perfectly.
I.M. Destler, a professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland, found it "ironic" that Kerry voted against the 1991 gulf war, which "had a much more unambiguous justification," and for the invasion of Iraq last year. And he finds Kerry's vote for the 2002 war resolution hard to reconcile with his later resistance to Bush's post-war request for money.
Still, he says, "Kerry probably has a more consistent world view than that would imply. It's very unlikely he would have gone to war if he had been president."
The Iraq war has been the background noise in the Democratic primary race - at the core of many candidate speeches, the focus of nearly every debate and one of the chief lines of attack on the president.
Early on, anger about the war ignited the passions of Democratic primary voters. As Kerry struggled to explain his support for the war resolution, a little-known ex-governor with a bold anti-war message, Howard Dean of Vermont, rocketed to the front of the pack.
Even Kerry's past as a decorated Vietnam veteran did little to convince voters he had the strongest hand on national security.
Still, as the primary season progressed, Kerry's "yes" vote on the war became less of an albatross. Saddam Hussein was captured, emboldening those who backed the war resolution.
After illicit weapons failed to turn up, Kerry and others charged, somewhat effectively, that the administration had either hyped or distorted the pre-war intelligence on which lawmakers based their vote.
Exit polls from the primaries and caucuses have shown support for Kerry even among those who have opposed the war.
Still, Kerry's record on Iraq provided fodder for opponents. Earlier in the primary season, anti-war candidates such as Dean charged that Kerry's record signaled a lack of judgment. These days, Republicans are zeroing in on what they call Kerry's "flip-flops" on the war.
"John Kerry's record as a United States senator and his rhetoric as a presidential candidate don't match up," said Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. "His rhetoric and record demonstrate the worst kind of political opportunism and hypocrisy."
Kerry's supporters counter that each of his votes holds up in the context of its time and circumstances, and that were all within the mainstream of Democratic centrist thinking.
David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, says the senator always believed Hussein should be held accountable but favored doing so with an international coalition. "He believes multilateralism is a strength, not a weakness," the spokesman said.
Kerry stands by his vote for the war resolution - Edwards also backed it - arguing that Bush broke his vow to exhaust all diplomatic options and to use force only as a last resort.
His vote "was not a vote specifically to go to war," Kerry said, explaining it recently on NBC's Meet the Press.
"It was a vote to do what President Bush said he would do, which is hold Saddam Hussein accountable by going to the U.N., working to build a legitimate global coalition, working to have an inspection process that was legitimate and that we were patient about, and finally, the president said he would go to war as a matter of last resort. The president broke every single one of those promises."
There was no binding language in the resolution, however, barring the president from going to war unilaterally.
The resolution passed in the Senate, 77-23, with 29 Democrats voting in favor, 21 opposed. Many Democrats were loath to be seen as tying the president's hands on national security a month before midterm elections and a year after Sept. 11.
Such considerations were seen as compelling for those, such as Kerry, who had voted against the 1991 gulf war and risked being seen as soft. Democratic strategists were warning that those who opposed the invasion would have a difficult time running for president.
On the eve of the vote, Kerry reportedly consulted with at least one adviser - his brother Cameron, a Boston lawyer - about the political implications of his decision. He called it "the hardest vote I have ever had to cast in my entire career."
After Kerry voted against Bush's Iraq aid request, saying the administration was on the wrong course in Iraq, Dean accused him of "trying to have it both ways" and of showing "neither strong leadership nor good judgment."
Destler says, "It is hard, on the one hand, to authorize the war and on the other hand, then not appropriate the money to deal with the consequences." The latter vote, he says, "was clearly driven by Kerry wanting to underscore his unhappiness about the war."
Kerry was among a majority of Democrats - 46 - who voted against the 1991 gulf war resolution, which passed by five votes. On the eve of that vote, Kerry accused the first President Bush of a "rush to war," arguing that U.N. sanctions should be given more time to work.
He was also dismissive of the international coalition the elder Bush had built. Yet Kerry has criticized the current president for failing to build the very kind of coalition his father "did a brilliant job" of assembling.
Analysts note that Democrats such as Kerry felt comfortable in 1991 opposing military action because the idea of economic sanctions was inviting.
"In 2002, the goal was different," Destler says. "If the goal was regime change, there wasn't a clear other option to war."