Slow shift in campaign's Iraq factor

Despite a rising death toll, the war - framed as a global defense of democracy - may be tilting in Bush's favor.

Just a few months ago, Iraq looked like President Bush's albatross. Facing a violent insurgency, bodies of contractors being dragged through the streets of Fallujah, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, polls showed public opinion turning sharply against the war, dragging down the president's approval ratings.

Today, however, while the violence in Iraq continues, the war has become less of a political negative - and by some measurements a positive - for Mr. Bush. Even as the US passed the 1,000-fatality mark this week, the number of voters saying it was a mistake to send troops into Iraq has dropped, and Americans now say they trust Mr. Bush on the issue more than his rival, Sen. John Kerry.

Wednesday Senator Kerry attempted to refocus the debate, linking the high cost of the war to the budget deficit. Speaking at the Cincinnati Museum Center, where Bush made his case for war back in 2002, Kerry accused the president of making "the wrong choices" in Iraq, forcing America to bear too much of the burden, and leaving fewer resources for domestic needs.

Yet for a variety of reasons, Kerry now faces an uphill battle in turning Iraq to his advantage on the campaign trail. In part, he's contending with waning public attention, as Iraq has moved out of the headlines. In recent days, for example, amid coverage of hurricane Frances, the Russian hostage crisis, and former President Clinton's heart surgery, the deaths of US soldiers got relatively little notice.

But Kerry has also struggled to clearly differentiate his position on Iraq from the president's, which has made it difficult for him to go on the attack - and made him vulnerable to charges of inconsistency when he does.

"The news from Iraq hasn't been any better [since the transfer of power]. But there has been less public attention, and that's benefited Bush," says Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Report. "The other part of the story is that Kerry was never able to exploit the issue."

Kerry goes back on the attack

The ongoing importance of the issue in the race was evident in the Kerry campaign's decision to go on the offensive, despite recent talk by aides that the campaign would spend the next two months focusing more on the economy and other domestic concerns. Along with Kerry's speech, the campaign unveiled a new TV advertisement attacking Bush's decision to "go it alone in Iraq without a plan to win the peace."

Although the economy may offer a more fruitful line of attack for Kerry, Democrats say he can't afford to cede the national security debate to Bush, and that Iraq still remains Bush's weakest point on that front.

But in recent weeks, it has also become something of a weak point for Kerry, as Bush has used the war to define Kerry as a flip-flopper - casting his decision to go to war as an example of steady leadership, and Kerry's more nuanced positioning as evidence of the Massachusetts senator's tendency to shift with political winds.

For months, Bush has pounded Kerry for first voting to authorize the war, but then - as Kerry was facing a stiff primary challenge from antiwar candidate Howard Dean - voting against a bill providing $87 billion in funding for US troops.

Then, last month, Bush challenged Kerry to say whether he would still have voted for authorization knowing the US would not find weapons of mass destruction. When Kerry said yes, the president cited it as inconsistent with Kerry's previous criticisms of the war.

This week, when Kerry attacked Bush for engaging in "the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time," Bush accused him of flip-flopping again.

Responding to Kerry's speech Wednesday on a conference call with reporters, Ed Banas, a former commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said: "No matter how many times Senator Kerry flip flops, we were right to make America safe by removing Saddam Hussein from power."

Where they differ

Democrats say Kerry has not been inconsistent, and that his disagreement with Bush on Iraq has always been over the means, not the ends. Kerry believed all along that Saddam Hussein must be confronted, but disagreed with the way in which the president took the nation to war - without a proper coalition, or plan to build the peace.

But they admit that Kerry has not done a good job so far of drawing a clear distinction with the president. The challenge for Kerry is to somehow shift the debate onto the question of whether Bush's policies in Iraq have been a success, rather than whether the decision to go to war was justified.

"It is imperative that Senator Kerry crystallize his message on Iraq better," says Will Marshall president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic group.

Bush's framing of the Iraq war

At the same time, many Democrats admit Bush has succeeded in framing the Iraq war as a crucial front in the larger war against terror, and as a necessary response to 9/11. At last week's convention, the president argued that the lesson of the 9/11 attacks was that America must be vigilant and quick to address threats before they grow.

Bush also pinned success in Iraq - and the effort to spread liberty in the region - as critical to the long-term goal of stemming terrorism.

"The Republicans did at least a temporarily successful job of enunciating a larger and lofty goal of defending democracy against a new extremism, and promoting democracy in the Middle East as the antidote [to terrorism]," says Mr. Marshall.

Still, he adds, there is a "widening gap" between the president's rhetoric and the current conditions in Iraq, which he believes Kerry can exploit: "Kerry's job is to get us back to reality."

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