As Sen. John Kerry criticizes President Bush's sweeping redeployment plan for US troops - and surrogates for both campaigns trade increasingly harsh attacks over the candidates' service during Vietnam - this latest round of sparring belies a fundamental reality: When it comes to defense and foreign policy, Senator Kerry and Mr. Bush agree on far more than they disagree on.
To an extent unusual for his party, Kerry has closely aligned himself with many of Bush's basic positions on national security, often quibbling more over matters of style and execution than the goals themselves. Unlike campaigns of past decades, such as the 1984 race between Walter Mondale and Ronald Reagan, Kerry is not questioning the Bush administration's enormous ramp up in military spending - and, in fact, says he wants to increase US troop levels. He stands by his vote to authorize the Iraq war, and while he would aim to start bringing some troops home from Iraq within six months, he also says he will keep them there until the job is done.
In fact, when Kerry challenges Bush, it's often from the right: Wednesday, speaking before the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention, Kerry charged that Bush's plan to bring troops home from Europe and Asia would actually leave the US more vulnerable to threats from countries like North Korea. "The President's vaguely stated plan does not strengthen our hand in the war against terror," he said.
Analysts note that the thrust of Kerry's criticism often centers on the administration's alienation of allies - a point Kerry hit on again Wednesday, saying: "With Al Qaeda operating in 60 countries, we need closer alliances in every part of the world to fight and win the war on terrorism." Yet when it comes to many of the policies that have caused friction with those allies - from the Kyoto treaty to the International Criminal Court to Iraq - Kerry's positions are not all that different from the president's.
"Where he is being political is [that] he's not being honest about the significant degree of overlap between his views and Bush's," says Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University. Kerry is essentially promising that he could pursue similar policies but still gain international support: "Kerry is promising you can have your cake and eat it too."
The hawkish positioning reflects the Kerry campaign's belief that, in the first presidential election since 9/11, Americans will not vote for a candidate who seems even remotely soft on defense.
There's some evidence he has succeeded in refashioning his party's image: In the wake of the Democratic convention, which was strikingly heavy on military themes, polls showed Kerry closing the gap with Bush on many national security measurements, including whom voters saw as the better commander in chief. Kerry is even making a direct play for the votes of veterans and military families, speaking before veterans groups like the VFW, and stressing that he would do a better job than Bush at ensuring veterans get healthcare and other benefits at home. Polls of veterans have been varied, but one survey after the convention showed Kerry running roughly even with Bush.
The Bush campaign is working hard to undercut Kerry's gains on the national security front, portraying him as inconsistent and lacking the requisite toughness. But Bush has also had to root around for clear policy differences to pinpoint between himself and the Massachusetts senator.
This week, for example, the president brought up the issue of missile defense at a Boeing plant in Pennsylvania, as a way of arguing that he understands the threats of the 21st century, while Kerry is stuck in a dangerously outmoded way of thinking. Opponents of missile defense are "living in the past," Bush said. "We're living in the future. We're going to do what's necessary to protect this country."
In response, Kerry's national security adviser Rand Beers shot back that in the run-up to 9/11, Bush and his advisers were "preoccupied with missile defense," adding that "their misunderstanding about the threats we face continues to this day."
Yet he also stressed that Kerry doesn't oppose missile defense - but believes it is "crucial to our national security strategy" - making the difference with Bush a matter of emphasis rather than substance.
The absence of major policy differences between the campaigns has also put more focus on personal qualities and experience - keeping the issue of military service central. Much of the sparring has been between third-party groups and surrogates, with the candidates themselves for the most part keeping a careful distance.
This week, Kerry denounced an ad by the group MoveOn.org that accused Bush of using his father's connections to get out of serving in Vietnam. But the charges have been repeated by a group of Kerry surrogates, including retired Gen. Wesley Clark. And Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin drew attention for remarks calling Vice President Dick Cheney a "coward" for avoiding service.
President Bush has not denounced an ad put out by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which, along with a new book, questions elements of Kerry's service, such as whether he deserved one of his Purple Hearts and his Bronze Star.