Flying from Columbia, S.C., to Wilmington, Del., last Friday, John Kerry sat down with TIME senior correspondent Douglas Waller and writer-reporter Eric Roston.
TIME: Are you too liberal to be elected President?
KERRY: That's a phony label that people try [to apply], but it doesn't work. Do you know the first thing I did when I got to Congress in 1985? I joined with Fritz Hollings as one of the original authors and sponsors of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction bill. It was heresy at home, but it proved to be the right policy. I've voted for welfare reform, one of the major defining issues of the decade, because I felt we needed to change the culture. We needed to make work valuable. And I've been for faith-based charitable efforts before it was popular. I just don't think the label fits.
TIME: What kind of Democrat are you?
KERRY: A thinking Democrat. You can call me an old-fashioned New Deal Democrat on X or Y. I'm not going to break faith on Social Security. I'm not going to abandon people who are struggling to earn a decent wage. But call me a New Democrat when it comes to creating jobs and being entrepreneurial and understanding the bottom line of business.
TIME: Where do you see yourself as vulnerable to attacks from Republicans?
KERRY: They'll probe and try to figure that one out. I'm not going to help them.
TIME: You once opposed mandatory sentences for people convicted of drug crimes.
KERRY: Yeah, but I voted for them later on. There may have been an individual instance where I thought they were too long or didn't make sense. But I've voted for mandatory minimums in certain instances.
TIME: Explain why you voted against the Iraq-war resolution in 1991 but voted for the Iraq-war resolution in 2002.
KERRY: It's very simple. I was for kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. I was for using force if we needed to. I simply felt, based on Colin Powell's own statements and others', that we needed a little more time to get the support of the nation in the event that things didn't go well. When you go to war, you want the support of your nation. But there was never a doubt about kicking him out--never a doubt about using force, never a doubt about what was at stake. In the case of this instance , I thought it was important to hold Saddam Hussein accountable. I said so in 1998, because he signed an agreement to disarm. And I thought it was critical for us and the world to hold him accountable to it. But there was a right way to do it, and there was a wrong way to do it. George Bush chose the wrong way and broke his promises to us about how he would go about it. It is particularly important for me that leaders keep faith with the American people about how they send young men to die. And I believe it ought to be done with a maximum amount of support and the maximum amount of potential for success.
TIME: Howard Dean says he has a leg up on you because he has run a large organization as a Governor.