- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 31, 2004

There were few memorable remarks in this election, which will pass into history tomorrow, but one that stands above all others encapsulates a central issue in this campaign.

During the second debate, Sen. John Kerry said, “I do believe Saddam Hussein was a threat,” and then reversed himself a few minutes later, stating that President Bush was “preoccupied with Iraq where there was no threat.”

If that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about Mr. Kerry’s contradictory thinking on the life-and-death issue of terrorism and national security, I fail to see what will.

That exchange led The Washington Post, the Kerry-friendly newspaper that endorsed the Massachusetts liberal last week, to editorialize that “Mr. Kerry seemed unable, even at this late date, to articulate one clear position” on Iraq.

Mr. Kerry does not seem to remember what he said in the past, or thinks that voters will not remember, so he says whatever he wants. By the way, he also said in that same debate, “I’ve never changed my mind about Iraq.”

During the 11th hour of this campaign, Mr. Kerry tried to make the whereabouts of the missing explosives at an Iraqi weapons facility south of Baghdad an issue. He argued that those explosives — from a country just a few weeks ago he said was not a threat — threatened our troops’ safety and U.S. security.

But as Mr. Kerry’s chief foreign policy adviser, Richard C. Holbrooke, said last week, “we do not know the facts” about where these weapons went before U.S. forces invaded Iraq. The Washington Times, quoting John A. Shaw, the deputy undersecretary of defense for international technology security, reports they were likely removed by Russian special forces just before the U.S. military operation.

Left unsaid in all of this was the fact that American military forces, after toppling Saddam Hussein, destroyed or captured more than 400,000 tons of Iraqi munitions.

At the time, I doubted that this somewhat dubious story would figure into the election’s outcome. Mr. Kerry locked onto it because polls showed that a majority of voters trust Mr. Bush to keep the country safe and secure. “There is no ‘maybe’ in his voice,” said a New Jersey mother and lifelong Democrat who told a Post reporter she was voting for Mr. Bush this time.

As I write this, the election remains close, as was expected, but Mr. Kerry was struggling in a number of big battleground states that Al Gore carried last time, but which were dead even as of last week. And these are heavily Democratic states, like New Jersey, labor-heavy Michigan and Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico, even reliably Democratic Hawaii — all have a combined electoral weight of 79 votes.

Clearly voters had been deeply divided over Iraq, but you would have thought that Mr. Kerry would draw stronger support in the Gore states. That he did not suggests that many Democrats and independents didn’t trust his judgment on national defense and terrorism.

Somewhere in this political mix of issues driving the electorate is the U.S. economy, something Mr. Kerry talked little about in the end.

Nationally, unemployment remains relatively low at 5.4 percent. In many of the battleground states it’s in the 3-4 percent range. And things have been improving on the economic front in the past month or two (excluding oil and gasoline prices), according to the Fed’s recent regional economic survey, known as the Beige Book.

Manufacturers are churning out more and selling more. Durable goods orders were up in September for the third time in four months. The trucking industry says it can’t find enough drivers to meet shipping demands. Retail sales were healthy, auto and trucking sales are up and inflation is low. The Fed says consumer prices, excluding food and energy, were up just 1.4 percent in the past year.

It’s hard to see an incumbent president losing re-election with the U.S. economy growing at 3.7 percent in the third quarter, and with a job approval rating of 50 percent or better. Especially against a challenger whose chief prescription for the economy is to raise income tax rates and the tax on stocks and capital gains, which would be a disincentive to venture capital investment and job creation.

This is an electorate that has been characterized as angry, cranky and volatile. But a recent poll by John Zogby showed for the first time that as many people think the country is moving in the right direction as those who think it’s on the wrong track.

Things are definitely getting better in this country. And the best and most welcome development of all is that this presidential election will be over tomorrow. Be sure to vote.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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