WASHINGTON — Sen. John F. Kerry faces a stark new challenge in the campaign skirmishing over Iraq: As President Bush has moved toward his position, the Democratic Party is moving away from it.
From one side, Kerry confronts calls from growing numbers of Democrats to establish a deadline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. That idea will receive a major boost today when Win Without War, a coalition of 42 liberal groups, launches a campaign urging the U.S. to set a date for ending its military presence in Iraq.
From the other direction, Bush has come much closer to Kerry's view that the U.S. should rely more on the United Nations to oversee the transition from occupation to a sovereign Iraqi government, thus blurring the contrast between the two men.
In the long run, these shifts in Democratic attitudes and Bush's strategy may pressure Kerry to break more sharply from the administration on Iraq, a step he has firmly resisted.
More immediately, the squeeze is encouraging Kerry to subtly shift his critique of Bush on the war. In his response to Bush's speech on Iraq on Monday night, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee focused less on criticizing the president's policies than on questioning whether he could provide the international leadership to implement them.
"That is the principal difference at this point in time," said Rand Beers, the Kerry camp's national security coordinator.
But as Kerry begins an 11-day focus on national security with a speech in Seattle today, his shrinking differences with Bush over Iraq could revive the problem that plagued him during the Democratic primaries: conflict with his party base over the war.
Recent polls have shown rising support among Democrats for withdrawal. And Win Without War plans a nationwide series of demonstrations in late June to push for a firm date.
"We are going to be making that case as vigorously as we can to the American people," said Tom Andrews, Win Without War's national director and a former Democratic House member from Maine.
While the liberal coalition veers away from Kerry, Bush over the last several weeks has crowded the Massachusetts senator by executing what many analysts see as a major midcourse correction on Iraq.
After months of resisting an expansive United Nations role in Iraq, the administration ceded to U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi responsibility for selecting the interim government expected to be given limited sovereignty on June 30.
Since last fall, Kerry's principal argument has been that Bush had to give the U.N. more authority in overseeing Iraq's political transition to trigger greater commitments of money and troops from other nations.
Kerry would still move further in that direction than Bush. In a recent speech, Kerry advocated the appointment of a U.N. high commissioner to direct the change from an interim to a permanent Iraqi government. He also said he would seek to place the coalition military effort in Iraq under NATO control (although with a U.S. commander).
But some Democrats acknowledge that these ideas now may strike many voters more as differences of degree than of kind with Bush, especially with independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader trumpeting the choice of rapid withdrawal.
"Kerry's position is being eroded," said one top Democratic foreign policy analyst who asked not to be named. "Kerry is in a position where the best he will be able to say is that Bush is finally doing what I said to do all along."
Compounding Kerry's problem, doubts are growing among Democrats to the open-ended commitment in Iraq that he echoes Bush in supporting. In an ABC/Washington Post survey released Monday, 53% of Democrats said the U.S. "should withdraw its military forces from Iraq ... even if that means civil order is not restored there."
Voices influential in Democratic circles are also promoting withdrawal. In recent articles, James B. Steinberg, the deputy national security advisor under President Clinton, and Leslie Gelb, the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, have said the U.S. should set a "date certain" for the withdrawal of all American troops.
Such a step, they argue, is critical to winning Iraqi backing for maintaining the occupation long enough to build a reliable security force for the country's new government.
The withdrawal idea is certain to receive more attention now that Win Without War, whose members include the influential liberal Internet advocacy group, MoveOn.org, has endorsed it after extensive deliberations.
Andrews, Win Without War's director, said that although the resolution the group will announce today will call for setting a deadline for withdrawal, it will not endorse a specific date.
"To us, the mere presence of an unwelcome occupation force is ... fueling the insurgencies, and it means our soldiers have become vulnerable targets unable to restore order," he said.