Last week was one of John Kerry's roughest in his still-young presidential campaign. On a daily basis the Bush-Cheney team savaged him as a weak-on-defense flip-flopper, while GOP operatives scoured his long Senate record for ammo. One line of attack: his October 2003 vote against spending $87 billion for the occupation and rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan. At the time, Kerry, who'd voted for the Iraq war resolution in October 2002, was trying to catch up to Howard Dean, the soaring antiwar candidate. Now the Massachusetts Democrat has played right into the hands of his critics. At a rally in West Virginia last week Kerry told supporters, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it." The Bush campaign pounced. "You can't make this stuff up," says a high-ranking aide. "With that one statement he just confirmed everything we want to say about him, which is that he wants to be on every side of every issue."

The Bush campaign had already been airing ads criticizing Kerry for voting against the Iraq supplemental-appropriation bill, which included money for extra body armor and higher combat pay for the troops. In no time, they tacked on the West Virginia clip. But Kerry's camp says the candidate has a more nuanced explanation. He had voted for a version of the bill that included an amendment to fund it by repealing some of the Bush tax cuts. But NEWSWEEK has learned that Kerry might have avoided the political mess he's in had he listened to one of his Senate colleagues. Hillary Rodham Clinton has told friends that in the Senate cloakroom just before the final vote, she advised Kerry to vote "aye" or he'd pay a price down the road. In the end, Kerry was one of only a dozen senators to vote against the bill.