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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE | NEWS ANALYSIS

Democrat Takes Off the Gloves on Iraq Debate

With public support for the war rising despite increased bloodshed, Kerry changes tack, saying Bush's strategy is headed for failure.

September 17, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Sen. John F. Kerry's tougher tone in a speech Thursday highlighted his new effort to sharpen his differences with President Bush on the conflict in Iraq.

Kerry's changed approach may reflect both opportunity and necessity: It coincides with an upsurge in insurgent attacks across Iraq but also follows a tilt toward Bush in recent surveys on public attitudes about the war.

Continued turmoil in Iraq could reverse Bush's gains on the issue before election day, most experts agree. But the recent trend in opinion suggests the president is succeeding in his efforts to define the Iraq war as a critical step in the long-term struggle against terrorism. And that is increasing pressure on Kerry to more fundamentally challenge Bush on the Iraq situation.

"The president is winning the debate over Iraq, despite the conditions on the ground," said Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council aide in the Clinton administration. "You have to go at the heart of the argument Bush is making: that Iraq is part of the war on terror. You have to make clear it has undermined our ability to fight the war on terror."

Those arguments, shared by some of Kerry's foreign policy and political advisors, appeared to be influencing a long-running dispute within the Kerry camp about how aggressively the Democratic presidential candidate should criticize the president over the conflict.

After focusing of late on the war's cost -- which many in both parties consider a second-tier concern, both politically and substantively -- Kerry now is more directly indicting Bush's strategy and suggesting it is headed for failure.

"With each passing month, stability and security seem farther and farther away," Kerry said Thursday to the National Guard Assn. in Las Vegas.

Senior Kerry aides say such pointed criticism may be only the first step toward a more frontal assault on Bush's case that the war will reduce the looming threat of terrorism by encouraging the spread of democracy in the Middle East.

"We have to separate [the Iraq war] from the overall war on terror and make the case that this ... diverted resources to something that did not contribute to the war on terror," said Joe Lockhart, Kerry's new senior communications advisor.

Kerry pressed that case Thursday when he declared, "The mess in Iraq has set us back -- way back -- in the war on terror. The simple fact is, when it comes to the war on terror, George W. Bush has taken his eye off the ball."

The feistier rhetoric comes none too soon for those Kerry advisors frustrated and concerned about recent polls that showed the slowly rising support for the war, despite the continuing bloodshed across Iraq.

"You and I know John hasn't made the case [against Bush on the war] so far," said one of Kerry's top foreign policy confidantes. "His failure has been in the critique."

The stakes in the campaign debate remain enormous. Polls consistently have found Bush receives solid public support for his handling of terrorism, while his ratings on the economy and other domestic concerns are much more equivocal.

To many analysts, that leaves the public judgment on his handling of Iraq as the election's potential tipping point. "This is the swing issue in the campaign," said conservative strategist William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a staunch supporter of the war.

A modest but unmistakable uptick in public support for the war has been evident in several polls. In an ABC/Washington Post survey early this month, 51% of registered voters thought the war has been worth the cost; in June, 47% felt that way. Likewise, the share of voters who said the war had contributed to America's long-term security increased to 58% from 51% in June.

Most dramatically, the percentage of Americans who said it was "a mistake" to send troops to fight in Iraq fell to 38% in an early September CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll. That's down from 54% as recently as July.

Bush's lead over Kerry in polls asking whom voters trust more to handle Iraq also has widened again, often reaching double digits after narrowing or even vanishing earlier.

Overall, public opinion on the war essentially has returned to its position before the spring's reversals in Iraq, including the disclosures of prisoner abuse by U.S. troops.

"We are back more or less where we were before the Abu Ghraib [prison] scandal," said Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who specializes in public opinion about national security.

Analysts point to three main reasons for the shift. One is the establishment of an interim Iraqi government in June, which reduced the visibility of the U.S. role in the conflict. That, in turn, contributed to reduced attention to the war in the U.S. media for much of the summer.

But many analysts believe a third key has been Bush's progress in linking the Iraq war to the war on terrorism -- an effort even some Kerry advisors admit has been effective.

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