When Senator John Kerry was speaking to Jewish leaders a few days ago, he said Israel's construction of a barrier between it and Palestinian territories was a legitimate act of self-defense. But in October, he told an Arab-American group that it was "provocative and counterproductive" and a "barrier to peace."
On Feb. 5, Mr. Kerry reacted to Massachusetts' highest court's decision legalizing same-sex marriages by saying, "I personally believe the court is dead wrong." But when asked on Feb. 24 why he believed the decision was not correct, he shot back, "I didn't say it wasn't."
Throughout his campaign, Mr. Kerry has shown a knack for espousing both sides of divisive issues. Earlier in the race he struggled to square his vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq with his loud criticism of the war and his eventual vote against $87 billion for military operations and reconstruction.
Now with the general-election campaign under way, President Bush and Republicans are already attacking Mr. Kerry for precisely this characteristic. In California this week, the president said Mr. Kerry had "been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue." And on Friday the Republican National Committee e-mailed to reporters an Internet boxing game called "Kerry vs. Kerry" designed, the committee said, to highlight the senator's "multiple positions on multiple issues."
The e-mail included a list of Mr. Kerry's stances on 30 issues, including many of the examples that were researched in preparation for this article.
In fact, this trait, perhaps a natural one for a diplomat's son, seems to have been ingrained in Mr. Kerry's personality as far back as when he volunteered for duty in Vietnam after expressing doubts about the war as a college student — and then returned home and helped lead the opposition to the war.
Some aides and close associates say Mr. Kerry's fluidity is the mark of an intellectual who grasps the subtleties of issues, inhabits their nuances and revels in the deliberative process. They call him a free-thinker who defies stereotypes. Others close to him say his often-public agonizing — over whether to opt out of the system of spending caps and matching money in this campaign, or whether to run against Al Gore in 2000 — can be exasperating.
And some Democratic strategists worry that Mr. Kerry is still an unfamiliar figure to many voters, and that these early attacks show just how vulnerable he is to being defined by the Republicans as indecisive or politically expedient.
"If Kerry fails to define himself as someone who's been consistent on values, on foreign policy, on domestic issues, then the Bush team will have succeeded in putting him in a corner," said Donna Brazile, who ran Mr. Gore's campaign in 2000. "They want to get to his integrity and his character, and they will use his voting record and previous statements to undermine that he can be trusted."
Other Democrats suggest that the areas in which Mr. Kerry has showed indecisiveness or tried to split the difference are the same ones in which most Americans are conflicted.
"Clearly he is trying to walk a very fine line on extremely divisive social issues like gay marriage and the Patriot Act," said Ron Klain, another Gore adviser in 2000. "These are issues where the political terrain is changing very rapidly, and he is trying to stay in the middle. And I think he's walking the tightrope on those issues, and doing a pretty good job of navigating it so far."
Sometimes, Mr. Kerry's stances seem to be well-thought political strategy. At no time was this more evident than the day when he spoke against opponents of gun control in an Iowa barn, then strode out to his car, unwrapped an old shotgun, and went off to shoot pheasant. The message was that hunters could be for gun control.
Other times he may tailor his stands to an audience or even run away from past positions. When Gen. Wesley K. Clark pointed to a 1992 remark by Mr. Kerry calling affirmative action "an inherently limited and divisive program," the senator denied he had ever said that.
Sometimes Mr. Kerry seems to embody contradictions. When he lost for Congress in 1972, went to law school and became a prosecutor, he stunned some of his colleagues in the antiwar movement who thought he shared their anti-authority sentiment, sharpened by Vietnam and Watergate.
"A lot of liberal Democrats in Massachusetts thought, What is this about?" said Ron Rosenblith, who met Mr. Kerry in the antiwar movement and has worked for him over the years as an aide, campaign manager and consultant. "They didn't see it as consistent."
Of course, it is just some of these aspects of Mr. Kerry — hunter, prosecutor, deficit hawk, war veteran — which now give him an answer to suggestions that he is nothing more than a "Massachusetts liberal" in the mold of Michael S. Dukakis, whom he served as lieutenant governor.
"He doesn't fit into any neat pigeon holes," said Mr. Kerry's younger brother, Cameron, his closest adviser. "He's complex. So what?"
Those who have known him a long time say Mr. Kerry is a creature of the gray areas in politics and policy, asking endless questions about all the angles, playing the devil's advocate until his aides are exhausted, arguing as if with himself until the last possible minute.
"There's indoor John and outdoor John," said Jonathan Winer, a Washington lawyer and former State Department official who worked for Mr. Kerry from 1983 to 1994.
"Indoor John is thoughtful, works all this through, is nuanced, and so deeply into the process that you can get impatient," Mr. Winer said. "Outdoor John is a man of action. There'd be a point where, Boom! and go. Once it happened, the dialogue was over, and you wouldn't always know which way he was going to go."
Mr. Kerry's explanations for a number of the recent stances Republicans are branding as flip-flops have a common thread. He voted for the Iraq resolution but criticizes the war because, he says, the president "broke his promises" to exhaust the diplomatic process and use force only as a last resort. He voted for the education legislation known as the No Child Left Behind law but lambastes President Bush now because, Mr. Kerry says, he withheld promised additional money for education.
And on Friday, he said he had criticized the Israeli wall before the Arab-American group in October because its path was then expected to deviate widely from Israel's border into West Bank villages — though he conceded he had not made the distinction clear at the time.
Mr. Kerry also voted for the antiterrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, which he has since all but repudiated, telling Democratic audiences that the best thing Congress put into that law was a sunset clause that will make it expire next year, unless Congress renews it. He has likened the law's use against Americans to the repression of Afghans by the Taliban.
But he also says the law was necessary when it was passed, as a response to the Sept. 11 attacks. And as recently as last week, he went further, telling a group of newspaper editors and reporters, "Of course I support it," before adding that his objections were mainly to the way Attorney General John Ashcroft had been "abusing" it.
People who have worked closely with him in the Senate say that Mr. Kerry tends to split differences. A longtime friend and aide put it this way: "On some major issues there are yes-but votes and no-but votes. He sees a lot of them as yes-but."
A "yes-but" can also be revisited. Mr. Kerry's critics have cited his position on the death penalty as evidence that even his core convictions can be bent to his political ambition. He was a longtime opponent of capital punishment but came out in favor of an exception for terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mr. Rosenblith said Mr. Kerry had been thinking about the issue for years. He recalled that Mr. Kerry had terrorists on his mind when the subject arose in his re-election campaign against Gov. William F. Weld in 1996. "Even in '96, he thought that was a close call," Mr. Rosenblith said, remembering an elaborate discussion of the issue. He said Mr. Kerry decided against a death penalty for terrorists at that time because he thought it would keep other countries from extraditing terrorism suspects to the United States.
Indeed, Mr. Kerry said in a debate that Mr. Weld's support for the death penalty "would amount to a terrorist-protection policy."
What changed Mr. Kerry's mind, Mr. Rosenblith said, was that after Sept. 11, 2001, "other countries are far less likely to say, `No, we're not going to turn over this person to you.' "
"The world looks at terrorism very differently," Mr. Rosenblith said.
Mr. Winer, the former aide, who worked with Mr. Kerry on terrorism and many other issues, described Mr. Kerry's complexity as right for the times.
"Between the moral clarity, black and white, good and evil of George Bush that distorts and gets reality wrong," he said, "and someone who quotes a French philosopher, André Gide, saying, `Don't try to understand me too much,' I'd let Americans decide which in the end is closer to what they need in a president, in a complex world where if you get it really wrong there are enormous consequences."