Bush drumbeat: war on terror

Polls show Bush beating Kerry by 20 points on leadership in fighting terrorism, but economy remains voters' No. 1 concern.

In the wake of a Republican convention that portrayed President Bush as a steely, visionary wartime leader - and pounded Sen. John Kerry as dangerously weak and indecisive - it's clear the Bush campaign is betting that this election will come down to one issue: Which candidate will be tougher in the war on terror?

The Republicans' overriding message, repeated throughout the week, was that since 9/11 America has entered a dangerous new era - a period like the cold war that calls for aggressive leadership and firm resolve. Speakers repeatedly made the case that the personal characteristics Mr. Bush embodies, as well as the values and priorities of his party as a whole, are inherently more suited to guiding the nation through perilous times. Handing power over to Senator Kerry and the Democrats, they implied, could jeopardize the nation's security.

Certainly, the strategy plays to Bush's strengths: Polls show the war on terror remains his strongest asset, with the president beating Kerry by as much as 20 points on that count. But by offering such a single-minded focus, the Bush campaign is also effectively counting on the fact that terrorism will trump all other issues - such as the economy - for voters.

"If the message continues as who can lead us through this war on terrorism better, then the president trumps [Kerry]," says independent pollster John Zogby. But "The No. 1 issue among voters is still the economy."

In the end, whichever issue dominates on Nov. 2 will likely determine the outcome of the election.

How the Kerry campaign responds

While Democrats agree that the war on terror will be a critical component - and their convention was in some ways nearly as muscular as the Republicans' - they also say the GOP convention was striking for its "complete absence" of an economic focus.

Kerry advisers argue that voters regard national security as more of a "threshold test." Voters want to see that the candidate would be a strong commander in chief, but then they want to know what else that candidate would accomplish on the economy, on healthcare, and other domestic issues.

They also argue that the heavy emphasis on the security theme is further indication that the Bush campaign is pursuing a "base strategy" - trying to win reelection by engineering a massive turnout of Republicans, rather than trying to win over undecided voters. Polls have shown that undecided voters are particularly pessimistic about the economy, and many analysts assume they will favor Kerry in the end.

Georgia Sen. Zell Miller's fiery attack on Kerry's national security credentials may have been "too hot" for undecided voters, who dislike negative campaigning, says Mr. Zogby. But "for Republicans, and maybe even those Republicans who are weak in spirit, he gave them some reasons [to vote for Bush]."

Beneath Bush's stance on the war

Perhaps the most important thrust on that front was the way in which the Bush campaign cast the war in Iraq as a critical element of the overall war on terrorism. Polls have shown that Iraq has become a growing drag on Bush's ratings, with even Republicans beginning to question whether the war was worth the cost.

At the convention, Republicans attempted to shore up support for the war, arguing that the primary lesson of 9/11 is that America must not allow any threat to fester - but must aggressively go after anyone who presents a potential menace.

"In Iraq we dealt with a gathering threat," said Vice President Dick Cheney.

Some even framed attitudes toward the war in the context of patriotism - with Senator Miller accusing Democrats of tagging US troops as "occupiers" rather than "liberators." While those arguments may not win too many converts among voters who are strongly antiwar, say analysts, they may succeed in shoring up support among those Republicans who had grown unhappy over the issue.

An emphasis on experience and allies

For his part, Kerry tried this week to seize the offensive on Iraq, with a speech attacking the Bush administration for rushing to war without a plan to win the peace.

While Kerry may not be able to "out-tough" Bush on Iraq or the war on terrorism, he is arguing that he would pursue better policies that would ultimately keep America safer.

"The strategy for the Bush campaign is to [frame the race around] who would be the safer, more effective commander in chief during wartime," says independent pollster Del Ali. Kerry's argument, he continues, is more along the lines of: "We're heading in the wrong direction, I have the experience, I have a better chance of rebuilding our alliances, and that way we can fight terrorism."

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