WASHINGTON — In an election year certain to be dominated by war and terrorism, the early rounds of the 2004 campaign are playing out as an unusual fight over national-security credentials, with both candidates working to cast themselves as the stronger leader - while attacking their opponent's record when it comes to defending the nation.
President Bush, whose strongest political asset has been his handling of the war on terror, has moved aggressively to claim the national-security terrain as his own. From the outset, the Bush campaign has portrayed Sen. John Kerry as "wrong on defense," highlighting Kerry's past votes to reduce the intelligence budget and eliminate certain weapons systems, as well as his vote against the $87 billion in funding for the war in Iraq - the subject of a recent ad.
But Mr. Bush's own defense record is coming under fire as well. Senator Kerry, who has made his service in Vietnam a cornerstone of his campaign, has attacked Bush's foreign policy as reckless and inept. Potentially more damaging, there's renewed criticism of Bush's handling of 9/11 - with Richard Clarke, the former White House counter-terrorism chief, accusing the president of ignoring the threat posed by Al Qaeda in the run-up to the attacks, and wrongly focusing on Iraq in the aftermath.
In many ways, the importance of national-security credentials was signaled early on: Kerry won the Democratic primary battle largely because voters believed he might be able to neutralize Bush's advantage on defense. And while voters may ultimately base their decisions more on real-world events - the success of the effort in Iraq, whether there are more attacks at home - the candidates' early efforts to establish their qualifications represent a critical battle for credibility.
"There's no question that this looks like a cold war election, with security at the center - which means that the commander-in-chief test is back," says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a Democratic think tank. The effort to establish national-security qualifications is far more critical for Kerry, as a challenger, he says. But "Kerry and the Democrats are doing a pretty good job of raising questions about George Bush's stewardship."
Both sides agree that their candidates' records are legitimate topics of debate. Still, to some voters, all this focus on the past seems far less important than what each candidate is proposing for the future.
In Kerry's case, some of the votes being highlighted came more than a decade ago, and reflected different national-security conditions. And while Bush's record over the past four years may be more directly relevant, analysts say most voters have already made up their minds about his performance.
"Once people trust a president on foreign policy - and they do generally trust this president on foreign policy - they don't second guess," says Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
Yet scrutiny of past performances can play a critical role in framing each candidate, she adds. While voters may not ultimately focus on - or care much about - the particulars of a certain vote or action, the overall impression formed by these details can prove lasting. "People aren't going to be examining individual votes or individual statements, they're going to be thinking about it in terms of the character of the man," says Ms. Bowman.
For Kerry, the danger is that the cumulative effect of Bush's charges fixes him in the public's mind as soft on defense - playing into a stereotype of Democrats that's persisted since the cold war. In a speech last week, Vice President Dick Cheney questioned Kerry's judgment on national security, saying his was "not an impressive record for someone who aspires to become commander-in-chief in this time of testing for our country."
There's some evidence the attacks may be working: Polls now show Bush pulling back ahead of Kerry, slightly.
But for Bush, the danger may lie in doubts about his trustworthiness. Some analysts speculate that the criticisms coming from Mr. Clarke, a veteran of Republican and Democratic administrations, could prove as damaging as the earlier testimony by weapons inspector David Kay.
"This is an insider with credentials and no partisan ax to grind," says Stephen Wayne, a political scientist at Georgetown University. "Someone with strong views painting a picture of the president as being simple, obstinate and impulsive."
Indeed, some analysts suggest Kerry is far better off with attacks on Bush coming from sources such as Clarke than from his own campaign. One of the biggest risks Kerry may face as he seeks to chip away at Bush's credibility is coming across as overly negative - particularly given that many Americans approve of the president's performance.
"Kerry should find a few places where he can compliment the incumbent on foreign policy," suggests Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. "To the extent people think Bush has done some things right ... if you're always categorically criticizing him, people are going to be afraid you'll reverse good policies as well as bad ones."