WASHINGTON — The 2004 presidential race may be one of those rare elections when foreign embroilment vies with domestic issues as a determining factor in the outcome.
Bill Clinton campaigned in 1992 under the mantra, "It's the economy, stupid!" But it isn't always. Richard Nixon campaigned in 1968 on an imaginary secret plan to end the Vietnam War. And President Carter in 1980 was hurt by the Iranian hostage crisis along with a dismal economy.
Congress and Democratic candidates, preoccupied with the fallout from the Iraq war, are distracted from major issues like Medicare, energy, electric-power grids, and Social Security. For example, child-welfare advocates fear the dismantling of the preschool Head Start program. Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children's Defense Fund and author of the phrase "Leave No Child Behind," mourns that she can't even get a hearing in the White House or Congress.
Meanwhile, Congress seems consumed with how to parse responsibility between the White House and the CIAfor an invasion whose justification is being called increasingly into question. Associated complexities claim attention - the memo by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld admitting misgivings about the progress of the war, the anti-Islam speeches of a Pentagon general, and the leak of secret information apparently meant to embarrass a diplomat who didn't play the Iraqi nuclear game the White House way.
A recentNewsweek poll shows 46 percent of voters in favor and 47 percent opposed to President Bush's reelection. It shows that 56 percent of those polled want the troops home. That's up 7 percentage points in a month. It should be remembered that the National Guard, 728,000 strong, has voters in every Congressional district.
Already, President Bush appears to be assuming a defensive position. In the wake of 35 killings in Baghdad in a day, including an American colonel, he said, "The more progress we make on the ground ... the more desperate these killers become."
Now the Bush administration has a plan for accelerated training of Iraqi militias, hoping that this will speed the return of American troops.
It is too early to say whether the war will be a major factor in the next election. If Iraq is still a problem a year from now, it could be an important factor - perhaps the most important factor - in the national election.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.