War intelligence and Democrats' risky responses

Candidates already divided on Iraq revive a clash that could sway '04 vote.

Questions surrounding the administration's handling of intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq war are ripping through the Democratic presidential campaign, reviving the party's painful debate over the war itself - and further widening the gap between pro- and antiwar candidates.

With the Senate holding hearings on whether the administration misrepresented intelligence about Iraq's weapons programs - and as the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq drags on with no significant discoveries - antiwar Democrats are seizing on the issue to challenge President Bush's credibility. Sen. Bob Graham, a former chairman of the Intelligence Committee, is accusing the president of "a pattern of deception and deceit," while former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has taken to asking: "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

The issue is creating an awkward situation for Democrats who supported the war, forcing them to pass on an opportunity to attack Mr. Bush, or to imply that they may have been misled, too. Rep. Dick Gephardt, for example, has essentially defended the administration's representation of the threat, telling CBS News: "There is a long line of evidence, going back to the early '90s, that Saddam Hussein had lots of weapons of mass destruction."

The danger of looking foolish

But while antiwar Democrats may gain some momentum among liberal voters on the issue, they run the risk of looking foolish if weapons eventually turn up.

"It's a potentially big boon for [antiwar candidates like] Dean and Graham, but also one rife with land mines," says independent pollster John Zogby. "Dean's antiwar stance and Graham's issue of how good is our intelligence raise some serious issues for Democrats," he says. But "if they go way out on a limb, and then weapons are found, that could be terribly embarrassing."

The ongoing potency of the Iraq debate on the Democratic campaign trail some two months after the fall of Baghdad is not surprising, given how deeply it divided the party, and the various problems that US troops have encountered in the wake of the war. But many antiwar Democrats believe the weapons issue could have an even bigger impact than the war itself, by casting doubt on administration's truthfulness.

"This turns the presidential race upside down," says Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, a strong opponent of the war, who has introduced a resolution in the House demanding the administration turn over intelligence to support its claims. Not only does it indicate "a carefully crafted policy of misinformation" on the part of the Bush administration, he says, but the Democratic Party is also confronted with "major candidates who supported a war that was not based on truth."

Probing a credibility question

Kucinich has largely hung his candidacy on his antiwar stance - and is the most dovish Democrat in the field. He believes that the war in Iraq will continue to resonate throughout the 2004 campaign, saying it "changed the direction of this country," both ideologically and financially.

Other candidates are downplaying their antiwar stances, but portraying the weapons issue as the gravest example of a series of White House deceptions. In particular, Senator Graham, who voted against the war resolution because he felt it would distract from the war on terror, has challenged the administration's honesty on everything from energy to economic policy.

"Lying to the American public is not something you should play around with," says Karl Struble, a strategist for Graham. "It's one thing to misrepresent a tax cut; it's another to put American lives in harm's way."

Still, Mr. Struble acknowledges that while the issue may resonate with liberals, it has not taken hold with the public. Polls show most Americans do not see weapons of mass destruction as the primary justification for war - and do not believe the administration deliberately misled them. Democratic voters have "shifted on the war," says Mr. Zogby: A majority in Iowa and New Hampshire now say that pro-war candidates are more credible.

But as Democrats probe the issue, Struble says it may grow. "The question is, will the media be responsible and report it?"

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