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CANDIDATES TOIL TO EXPLAIN FLIP-FLOPS

One of the good things about a political campaign is the chance to watch the candidates as they try to straddle gaping contradictions they have created.

Take Bob Kerrey - Nebraska senator, Vietnam war hero. He rose on the Senate floor Thursday to deliver an impassioned defense of fellow Democrat Bill Clinton, who is getting roughed up by the Republicans over his draft record.Back off, Kerrey warned. It is wrong to exploit the divisive wounds of Vietnam for selfish political gain.

"Mr. President, I urge you to call off the dogs," said Kerrey. "Consider all you risk losing. Consider that you jeopardize the healing you have sought if now - in the hunt for an issue that cuts - you attempt to make Bill Clinton's choices less honorable than yours."

It was quite a speech - except it bore almost no relationship to the things Ker-rey was saying six months ago - when Kerrey was running against Clinton.

"If he wanted to go in the military, he could have gone in the military, plain and simple," Kerrey said. "And all this stuff, `Oh, no, I was, you know, I was doing this, that and the other thing, I tried to do it,' that's baloney."

The Democrats, Kerrey said, would "risk disaster" by picking Clinton to run against Bush, a World War II pilot who was shot down by the Japanese. Against the Republicans, Clinton "is going to get opened up like a soft peanut."

Back then, it was Clinton who appealed to Kerrey's better nature: "I don't think it's a good thing to try to divide the party or the country over the Vietnam War."

So on Friday, on NBC's Today show, host Katie Couric asked Kerrey to explain his change of heart.

With a remarkably straight face, the Nebraska senator observed that when it came to Vietnam, Clinton's "choice was different than mine, but it by no means disqualifies him. In fact, I think it in many ways would deepen his capacity to be a terrific president."

It's that kind of clear thinking and stirring oratory that brought Kerrey where he is today - making speeches on behalf of the Democratic nominee, rather than running for president himself.

Of course, Kerrey isn't the first politician to get caught in a gaping contradiction, and the risk is not confined to Democrats. Patrick Buchanan's opinion of Bush depends very much on whether Buchanan is running against him.

After the gulf war, the conservative commentator gushed with praise: "Not since FDR has an American president seemed so dominant a presence. Mr. Bush doth bestride our narrow world like a colossus."

Just a few months later, in the Republican primary, the "colossus" had become a coward, in Buchanan's view: "He will not fight. He will not fight for the things we believe in."

By the GOP convention last month, Buchanan's opinion of Bush had recovered dramatically. The president, once again, was an "American patriot and war hero."

The contradictions are enough to make a person disgusted with politics. But it's more fun to watch the flip-flops as spectator sport, especially when a politician tries some complicated intellectual gymnastics - and lands flat on his face.