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Iraq Debate Already Hot as Rivals Prepare for Test

Thursday's Bush-Kerry matchup may be pivotal. Both men are on the defensive over the war.

September 29, 2004|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry both face intensifying challenges to their credibility on Iraq as they approach Thursday's potentially pivotal debate on foreign policy.

Bush and his allies are barraging Kerry with accusations that his escalating criticism of the administration's strategy in Iraq contradicts his earlier support for confronting Saddam Hussein's regime. "How can John Kerry protect us, when he doesn't even know where he stands?" the Bush campaign charges in a new ad.

Kerry and his allies are accusing Bush of forfeiting his credibility by presenting a "fantasyland" picture of Iraq. "It is Alice through the looking glass, it is spin," said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo), who returned from a trip to Iraq last week.

The parallel offensives have created an unusual situation in which both candidates appear on the defensive over the same issue as they prepare for their first debate.

Bush's approval rating on Iraq and support for his decision to invade improved through the summer. But they are slipping again amid the rising violence there. And in a Time magazine poll released Friday, 55% of voters said they believed the "situation is worse than Bush has reported."

But Kerry's situation may be even more precarious. Several new polls have found that a majority of Americans do not believe he has offered a clear plan for improving conditions in Iraq. And the share of voters who see Kerry as a strong leader or as Bush's equal as a potential commander in chief has dropped sharply since July's Democratic National Convention.

"You end up with both of them having Iraq problems," said Lee Miringoff, director of the nonpartisan Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. "Kerry's problems are the legendary 'flip-flops' and the demands on him for clarity. And Bush's problems are what we are seeing on the news every night."

So far, the doubts about Kerry are trumping the doubts about Bush. Despite the growing anxiety about events in Iraq, Bush holds a solid lead over Kerry in almost all recent surveys when voters are asked which candidate they trust to handle the conflict from here on.

"The conventional wisdom says that if things are going bad in Iraq then it is bad for George W. Bush," said Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director. "But that's not revealing itself in the data. I think that's because ... when things are tough, people are still relying upon the president in those tough times."

That dynamic suggests that a critical question in Thursday's debate will be whether Kerry can restore enough confidence in his leadership ability on Iraq to benefit from the lingering doubt over Bush's policies there.

"At this point, people know that they don't like the way things are going in Iraq, they know they don't particularly like the way Bush is dealing with it, so the last question is whether John Kerry is resolute and strong enough to deal with it," said a senior Kerry advisor, who requested anonymity.

The foreign policy debate comes as Iraq has dominated the presidential race for nearly two weeks.

In speeches last week at New York University and Temple University, Kerry heartened many Democrats by sharpening his war criticism of Bush.

In those speeches, which aides point to as guideposts for his debate message, Kerry distilled his attack over Iraq to two central arguments.

He has pressed his "fantasyland" case, arguing that conditions in Iraq are far worse than Bush is depicting. Kerry also maintains that the war in Iraq has set back the struggle against terrorism by diverting attention from Al Qaeda, alienating allies and inciting anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world.

Without committing to a specific timetable, Kerry said in his New York speech that he could begin withdrawing American troops from Iraq next summer -- and "realistically aim" to bring all of the troops home over four years -- by persuading other nations to send more forces.

Bush and his backers have responded to Kerry with three key arguments.

They have said conditions in Iraq are improving. "I was incredibly impressed with the overwhelmingly high morale of the United States forces over there and the determination of the interim [Iraqi] government," said Rep. Wally Herger (R-Marysville), who participated in the same congressional trip to Iraq as Tauscher.

They have portrayed Kerry's sharper criticism as political opportunism that clashes with his 2002 vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq and subsequent comments that defended the decision to take on Hussein.

And they have insinuated that Kerry is undermining the war effort by signaling his intention to begin withdrawing troops as president and by criticizing Bush's strategy in the conflict.

"You can embolden an enemy by sending a mixed message," Bush said at a news conference with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi last week. "You can dispirit the Iraqi people by sending mixed messages."

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