By Kelly O'Donnell Capitol Hill Correspondent
NBC News
updated 11/4/2004 11:25:01 AM ET 2004-11-04T16:25:01

On Monday, Sen. John Kerry's political mission boiled down to one thing: finding clarity on Iraq. It was his attempt to dismantle the president’s decisions and, more important for Kerry, to shake off confusion about his own position on the war.

"Let me put it plainly: The president's policy in Iraq has not strengthened our national security. It has weakened it," Kerry told an audience at New York University.

Kerry went further than he ever has before. Using the equation “consider everything known today,” Kerry now says the war was wrong and labeled a series of the president’s judgments a "colossal failure."

"Is he really saying that if we knew there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no ties to al-Qaida, the United States should have invaded Iraq? My answer is resoundingly no," said Kerry.

The Massachusetts senator repeatedly mentioned Osama bin Laden and said invading Iraq was a "profound diversion" from that real enemy.

"We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure," he said.

The trouble for Kerry is that he did vote to authorize the war and even Monday defended that vote, turning the blame on the president, saying Bush failed to use it properly. Kerry aides say they believe they can move beyond that now, with a more pointed critique of the worsening conditions in Iraq today and by challenging the president on what should be done next.

The president fired back from New Hampshire, accusing Kerry of "twisting in the wind."

"He apparently woke up this morning and has now decided, no, we should not have invaded Iraq, after just last month saying he still would have voted for force even knowing everything we know today," said President Bush.

The Bush campaign characterizes Kerry's view as "retreat and defeat," while Kerry claims the administration's choices and troubling conditions on the ground are reason enough for voters to choose change.

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