In 2004 presidential campaign, war may hover

US economy has stolen the spotlight, but war may be a hot topic at first Democratic debate.

The end to hostilities in Iraq has ushered in a new, more vigorous phase in the Democratic presidential campaign. For the first time in months, the war is no longer the predominant issue, even as it continues to shape the contours of the race.

With the first Democratic debate scheduled for this weekend in South Carolina, candidates are focusing primarily on domestic issues, offering proposals on healthcare and the economy, while attacking President Bush's record at home. Many candidates, who just a few weeks ago were routinely grilled on their views of the war, now rarely encounter Iraq-related questions.

At the same time, the war, in subtle ways, continues to influence the campaign, and may do so for a while.

Candidates have already been defined in part by the stances they took on the war, and the ways in which they conveyed their positions - and some of these impressions may prove lasting.

Moreover, even in its wake, the war remains the sharpest point of disagreement among many candidates, and the most fertile grounds for attack. While all agree the military operation was a success, many of the broader issues surrounding the conflict - such as its long-term cost or the length of US occupation - are still unresolved, essentially prolonging much of the debate over the war itself.

"A lot of what's going to define people's attitudes toward this war is yet to happen," says a Democratic strategist. "Everybody's a little bit skittish about being too definitive about the outcome of the war."

Certainly, the war has receded from the campaign trail, as candidates and the public increasingly turn their attention to domestic issues. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that, for the first time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the public regards the economy and unemployment as a bigger problem than war and terrorism.

Democrats get domestic

Every Democratic candidate is focusing heavily on the loss of jobs and the bulging deficit under Mr. Bush's tenure, calling for the repeal of most or all of the president's tax cuts. Bush has been turning his attention to the economy as well, traveling around the country to push for more tax relief.

"The war is going off the radar screen," says Dick Harpootlian, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. "How people get a job, put their kids through college, or pay for their 80-year-old mother's prescription drugs - those things are coming home to roost."

Still, these issues aren't wholly separate from the war. At a time when states like South Carolina are struggling to close billion-dollar budget shortfalls, the amount of money the Bush administration is spending on Iraq is drawing more and more criticism, says Mr. Harpootlian.

"In coffee shops here, we're beginning to hear talk of 'America first,' " he says.

To some extent, Democrats agree, the Iraq war will remain an issue in the campaign, simply because the president is likely to make it - along with the larger war on terror - a centerpiece of his reelection effort. Many point to the Republican convention, scheduled to take place in New York City just days before the third anniversary of Sept. 11, as evidence of his advisers' determination to highlight the issue of national security and Bush's wartime leadership.

"They've signaled their intention to make that a focal point of the rest of the campaign," says David Axelrod, an adviser to Sen. John Edwards.

But it's not just the president who's unwilling to drop the subject.

More than any other issue, the war continues to give Democratic candidates the best means of differentiating themselves from their rivals - and it has in recent days been the cause of increasing sniping between the campaigns.

This week, Sen. John Kerry's campaign directly attacked a statement made by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean that the US needs better diplomacy because it "won't always have the strongest military."

The statement "raises serious questions about [Dean's] capacity to serve as a commander in chief," Kerry's communications director stated in a press release. "No serious candidate for the presidency has ever before suggested that he would compromise or tolerate an erosion of America's military supremacy."

A radical approach that might work

Most campaign strategists agree that Governor Dean's antiwar stance gave his candidacy enormous momentum in the run-up to war, energizing the party's liberal base and drawing a number of supporters to his campaign. He pilloried his pro-war opponents as either inconsistent or afraid to take on the president, often winning roars of approval at Democratic events.

As a result, some argue that Dean's appeal may extend beyond his antiwar stance. All along, he has emphasized that his opposition to the Iraq conflict is simply one aspect - albeit the most visible one - of an overall effort to "represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic party."

But in the wake of the war's successful outcome, some aides to rival campaigns argue that Dean has put himself in an "antiwar box," giving his opponents an opening to counterattack.

His continued opposition to the war looks more like a defense of Saddam Hussein, says one operative, appealing only to "the fringe of the fringe." And Dean's support in New Hampshire has dipped slightly, according to a new survey by the American Research Group.

Still, some of Dean's criticisms of the war - such as the lack of discovery of any weapons of mass destruction - may continue to resonate with certain voters, and could prove problematic for prowar candidates down the line.

Most prowar candidates are focusing on the inconsistencies of their opponents' positions, rather than taking credit for having been proved "right."

"Having said 'I told you so' may look awfully stupid in retrospect," says an adviser to a pro-war candidate.

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