In 12 days, Americans will go to the polls to render a verdict on George W. Bush’s presidency.

But Nov. 2 will not simply be a re ferendum on President Bush’s leader ship. It is about the choice facing the nation — not just whether Bush deserves another term, but whether Sen. John F. Kerry provides an acceptable alternative.

The answer to the latter question is an emphatic no.

John Kerry comes out of the Democratic Party’s elitist left wing, embracing values and goals that America has repudiated at the polls time and time again.

True, Kerry campaigns like a centrist. But his 20-year record in the Senate belies that flag of convenience.

Suffice it to say that John Kerry has rarely seen an expensive social program he didn’t embrace — or a national-security initiative he could abide.

And long before he came to the Senate, Kerry made a national reputation as the spokesman for those whose solution to Vietnam was simply to run away. Moreover, he earned that rep by publicly slandering an entire generation of U.S. soldiers as — in his own words — “war criminals.”

Now America faces a chal lenge unlike any it has ever before experienced: global Islamist terrorism.

But to Kerry, terrorism is a law-enforcement problem, to be fought like organized crime or gang violence. And — for all his equivocation on a pledge never to use military force unless its purpose meets a “global test” — his record suggests strongly that he meant precisely what he said the first time.

He first ran for office pledging that he’d “like to see our troops dispersed through the world only at the directive of the United Nations” — and he’s rarely strayed from that position.

Yet even when America put together a global coalition and United Nations endorsement to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991, Sen. Kerry actually led congressional opposition to that effort.

Once the war was being prosecuted successfully, however, Kerry started waving the flag — even praising the first President Bush’s “moxie.”

This time around, Kerry endorsed the removal of Saddam Hussein as a threat to America’s security and voted to authorize the unilateral use of force.

Then, when the postwar picture grew complicated (and radical antiwar can didate Howard Dean seemed to be running away with the nomination), he turned against the war, voting against properly equipping supplying troops then in harm’s way — explaining that he’d only meant to “authorize” the use of force, not actually to use it.

For two decades, he has voted to slash America’s defense budget, eliminating vital weapons systems.

As recently as 1994 — just one year after the first World Trade Center bombing — he proposed mammoth cuts of the Pentagon and intelligence-agencies budgets. Many of Kerry’s own Democratic colleagues took to the floor of Congress to warn that his cuts endangered America’s security.

In the end, even Ted Kennedy voted against Kerry’s proposed defense cuts as too drastic.

Yet, the following year, Kerry voted to freeze defense spending for seven years. The year after that, he introduced a bill to slash defense spending by a further $6.5 billion.

Today, Kerry campaigns as a deficit hawk, citing his support of the Reagan-era balanced-budget bill. At the time, however, he boasted that he only voted for the bill “to force the Reagan administration to cut defense spending.”

John Kerry, in short, remains firmly in the throes of Vietnam syndrome, afraid to take the steps needed to protect America from threats to its security — and, even worse, tailoring his worldview to his current standing in the polls.

And, by the way, he now campaigns against the Patriot Act, calling it a threat to our civil liberties. Yet he voted in favor of that very same bill, too.

Little wonder, then, that John Kerry has spent almost no time on the campaign trail talking about his record. Because it’s the skeleton in his closet — an endless litany of left-wing votes and proposals that refutes his headlong rush to the political center as Election Day draws near.

On domestic issues, the record is the same: Kerry’s campaign pledges and pronouncements are totally contradicted by his 20-year performance as a legislator from Massachusetts. “I’m a liberal and proud of it,” Kerry declared in 1991 — and nothing he’s done in the Senate suggests otherwise.

He has voted consistently to raise taxes — though on other issues, he is consistently inconsistent: opposing the death penalty for terrorists in 1996, then supporting it in 2002; voting for the No Child Left Behind Act, then attacking it as a “mockery”; opposing work requirements for welfare recipients, then voting for welfare reform; saying he opposes litmus tests for federal judges, then vowing to impose one if he wins this year.

And at a time when soaring liability insurance costs — in the wake of sky-high jury verdicts — are threatening the U.S. health-care system, Kerry chose as his running-mate a multi-millionaire personal-injury lawyer who stands in the way of any meaningful tort reform.

Himself a multi-millionaire by marriage, Kerry unconvincingly pretends to champion the struggling middle-class even as his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, derides the work experience of Laura Bush — a former schoolteacher and librarian and a full-time mother.

“I don’t know that she’s ever had a real job, I mean, since she’s been grown up,” Heinz Kerry told USA Today — a remark for which she quickly apologized.

Ultimately, however, there is one over- riding issue in this campaign: the War on Terror.

That much became clear — to everyone, it seems, except John Kerry — in the ashes of the World Trade Center.

For most Americans, 9/11 changed the way this nation needs to think about external threats and national security.

But for John Kerry, still stuck emotionally in the Vietnam quagmire, it appears that there were no lessons to be learned.

Which is why America can’t afford John Kerry as president.

New York Post Online Edition: postopinion

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