- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Terrorism and the war in Iraq trumped the economy as defining election issues for both President Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry.

“From the beginning, it was obvious to both sides that a Kerry win would mean Americans saw Iraq as a side adventure and decided they wanted to fire Bush, because this is what both sides talked about right up until the last minute of the campaign,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.

For the rival campaigns, the key to success lay in defining the central issues of the election.

The Kerry campaign sought to highlight economic issues such as jobs, health care and Social Security while convincing voters that protecting Americans from terrorism was a separate issue from the war in Iraq.

Team Bush’s strategy, meanwhile, was to minimize economic matters while showcasing the president as a wartime leader, merging Iraq and terrorism as a single issue in voters’ minds. Republican strategists sought to present Mr. Bush as both the avenger of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and America’s strong defender against future attacks.

“The smartest thing the president did was to try to keep terrorism and Iraq as a single issue in voters’ minds,” said Les Francis, a former Carter White House aide.

“Remember, polls kept showing that a sizable portion of the electorate thought Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11, and 9/11 was the defining moment of his presidency,” Mr. Francis said. “In almost everybody’s estimation, [Mr. Bush] rose to the occasion and united the country in support of going after the terrorists.”

The outcome of the election hinged, in that sense, on whether voters were more comfortable picturing Mr. Bush or Mr. Kerry as their wartime president for the next four years. The slow economic recovery, polls indicated, became secondary in helping undecided and wavering voters make a final decision.

“Voter intensity, as reflected in the huge turnout, is being driven by those two issues — Iraq and terror — which have from the beginning been the two hyper-emotional issues of this election cycle — more than the economy, even with voters who said in polls and focus groups that the economy mattered most,” pollster John Zogby said yesterday.

In some states, the task of putting terrorism first was easier than in others. In Wisconsin, the economic picture had brightened just enough so that the jobs issue didn’t compete with the war on terror, said Bill Drew, a Democrat and former president of the Milwaukee City Council.

“Here the economy is not robust but it ain’t bad — certainly not as bad as some of our own Democratic rhetoric would lead some to believe,” Mr. Drew said. “That should have helped Bush to make national security and terrorism the central concern.”

Time to time, Mr. Kerry tried to shove the economy front and center, repeatedly comparing Mr. Bush to Depression-era President Herbert Hoover.

But time after time, news events pushed terrorism to the front — as in early September, when Chechen terrorists seized and killed schoolchildren in Russia, a reminder to American parents, especially mothers, of the peril posed by terrorism.

“If you look back at the tracking polls, that seizure of the school in Russia was probably the single most important event in the campaign,” said David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

“Bush’s numbers began to rise” after the attack in Russia, Mr. Keene said, even though Mr. Bush’s boost in poll numbers later “got sidetracked by his performance in the first debate.”

The issue of national security trumped ideology in the Republican strategy against Mr. Kerry. Though Mr. Bush tried to label the Massachusetts senator as a liberal, that line of attack didn’t work for the president the way terrorism did.

Mr. Kerry struggled to close the deal with voters, a majority of whom repeatedly told pollsters they felt the country was on “the wrong track.” The Democrat aimed head-on at the administration’s decision to invade Iraq, which Mr. Kerry called a “diversion” from the war on terrorism and “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

In almost every poll throughout the campaign, Mr. Bush had high approval ratings on handling terrorism but declining approval on his conduct of the war in Iraq and on whether the war was worth the cost in money and lives.

“Kerry’s job was always to separate the two issues while Bush pursued a risky strategy of trying to unite Iraq and terrorism, to pull up his numbers on the war, even though his advisers knew it could always backfire on him,” Mr. Zogby said.

In Mr. Zogby’s polling, the majority of likely voters who said the war was worth it went from the upper 50 percent range to the reverse by the summer of this year, with a majority finally deciding it wasn’t worth it.

“In the end, more voters came out to register and vote, especially first-time voters, to register their opposition to the war [rather] than to support the war on terrorism,” Mr. Zogby said.

But Mr. Bush stuck with his strategy till the end.

From start to finish, Mr. Graham said, “Bush made it his job to get the war issue front and center, because he was always seen by voters, in all polls, as the stronger leader. But he had to seal the deal with them that the war in Iraq was part of the war on terrorism, making domestic issues take a back seat. Domestic issues always favored Kerry.”

“From Bush’s viewpoint. It was the smart thing to do,” Mr. Graham added.

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