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McCain Takes Aim at Kerik - and Giuliani

The former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani with his former Police Chief Bernard Kerik. (Getty).

Updated: 7:08 p.m.

The long-anticipated indictment of former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik was expected to provide an opening for political rivals of Kerik's mentor, Rudy Giuliani, and the first one to seize it was John McCain.

Speaking in New Hampshire, McCain did not focus on the list of particulars in today's indictment, which centered around allegations that Kerik accepted $165,000 worth of renovations, as well as free rent, on apartments in New York and failed to pay taxes on the favors. Instead McCain zeroed in on Kerik's brief tenure in 2003 as the person in charge of training Iraq's police force, an endeavor that in hindsight has been widely judged a failure. It was after his return from that assignment that President Bush nominated Kerik as his Homeland Security secretary, in December 2004, based on a strong recommendation from Giuliani. The nomination was withdrawn amid a stream of revelations that led eventually to a 2006 misdemeanor plea by Kerik and today's indictment.

"I don't know Mr. Kerik. I do know that I went to Baghdad shortly after the initial victory and met in Baghdad with (Ambassador Paul) Bremer and (Lt. Gen. Ricardo) Sanchez. And Kerik was there. Kerik was supposed to be there to help train the police force. He stayed two months and one day left, just up and left," McCain told reporters traveling on his campaign bus, according to the Associated Press. "That's why I never would've supported him to be the head of homeland security because of his irresponsible act when he was over in Baghdad to try and help train the police. One of the reasons why we had so much trouble with the initial training of the police was because he came, didn't do anything and then went out to the airport and left."

Former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, the man Kerik was supposed to replace, was traveling with McCain and said Giuliani's recommendation of Kerik betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between the responsibilities of a mayor and president. "It was clear the mayor and I had a different view what the department does and the kind of leadership it needed," Ridge told reporters, according to the A.P. "His judgment would've been different than mine."
"We're not talking about some urban city patronage job," Ridge added. "That's not what a Cabinet secretary's about."

The Giuliani campaign fired back later in the day. Randy Mastro, a deputy mayor under Giuliani, invoked McCain's involvement in the Keating 5 scandal in the 1980s to make the case that no politician is perfect. "It's no fairer to judge Rudy Giuliani on the basis of this one issue than it would be to judge John McCain on the basis of the Keating 5 scandal," Mastro said.

Campaign spokeswoman Katie Levinson took a sharper tone. "Is this what desperation looks like? Bernie Kerik's issues have been known since 2004 and John McCain still had glowing things to say about Rudy Giuliani and his leadership. What, exactly, changed today?" she said. "Best as I can tell, it's just John McCain's pure desperation in the face of a failing and flailing campaign trumping his so-called straight talk. It is truly a shame that John McCain has chosen to stoop this low."

As of late afternoon, Giuliani's other rivals had yet to address the matter. The Romney campaign, which had no events scheduled in the first part of the day, simply pointed reporters to Romney's past remarks on the need for maintaining high ethical standards in government, including a comment he made in September that was taken to refer partly to the men's bathroom scandal involving Sen. Larry Craig, a Romney supporter: "We can't have ethical standards that are a punch line for Jay Leno. When Republicans act like Democrats, America loses."

However, Kevin Madden a spokesman, said later that Romney was heading into his first event of the day, and was "'prepared"' to respond to any questions.

Fred Thompson, meanwhile, told reporters at a Washington press conference that he didn't know enough about the Kerik case to address it. "I heard about it a while ago; it's been in the news, obviously for a long time, but I don't know anything about the facts of that case, and I really can't comment on it," he said.

Giuliani has prepared for the indictment all week by admitting a "mistake" in failing to vet Kerik's background more thoroughly while also defending Kerik's work in his administration. When he was mayor of New York, Giuliani selected Kerik, his former driver and bodyguard, as corrections commissioner in 1998 and police commissioner in 2000, a meteoric rise for someone who rose no higher than the rank of detective in the police department.

"Voters should look at it and what they should say is in that particular case I pointed out that I made a mistake. I made a mistake of not clearing him effectively enough. I take the responsibility for that," Giuliani said in Iowa yesterday. "I made a mistake in not checking him out more carefully, but when you balance that mistake against all of the successes that we had and the reality that you make some mistakes and you make some correct decisions, I think the overwhelming record is a record of great success."

Giuliani went further in an interview with ABC reported yesterday, in which he praised Kerik as an "exceptional" corrections commissioner who "did the impossible" as police commissioner" and compared Kerik to Richard Nixon. "But, you know, people are complex," he said. "Richard Nixon had this very serious problem, but his breakthrough with China was one of the historical things that happened in the 20th century. You can't take that away from him." Likewise, Giuliani said, Kerik as a public safety commissioner "did a very good job. I know people don't like to hear it, but he did."

Earlier in the week, Giuliani suggested in an interview with the Associated Press that the results of Kerik's work as police commissioner outweighed the later revelations. "There were mistakes made with Bernie Kerik. But what's the ultimate result for the people of New York City?" he said, going on to list the city's crime statistics under his mayoralty. "Sure, there were issues, but if I have the same degree of success and failure as president of the United States, this country will be in great shape."

--Alec MacGillis

By Bill Hamilton  |  November 9, 2007; 4:45 PM ET
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