- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A week into Sen. John Kerry’s newly minted message of opposition to the war in Iraq, Democrats say they think he has settled on the winning argument, but, so far, the polls don’t show the Democratic presidential nominee gaining any ground on President Bush on the issue.

Mr. Kerry settled on the new strategy several weeks ago and launched it with a speech at New York University on Sept. 20, in which he said he no longer thinks the war in Iraq was justified, but emphasized that U.S. troops must remain committed in order to prevent chaos in Iraq.

Mr. Kerry’s sharpened criticism includes not just accusing the president of misleading the nation into war but also a jab at whether Mr. Bush knows or is leveling with voters about the current situation.

“Iraq is in crisis, and the president needs to live in the world of reality, not in a world of fantasy spin,” Mr. Kerry said in a subsequent speech last week, as he continued to hammer on his theme that Mr. Bush’s war plan cannot work and that a new president is needed to internationalize the effort.

The new tack is winning strong reviews from Democrats who had been waiting for their candidate to put a fine point on an argument that many of them have been making.

“I’m glad he did it,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. “I thought his statement was excellent and very direct. Now, he will have to work hard to drive it home.”

Political strategists said the debates offer the perfect chance for that.

“I think he’s hitting his stride at a good time heading into Thursday’s debate,” said Chris Cooper, a Democratic strategist. He said Mr. Kerry has “focused his message and tightened it up.”

“On Thursday, there are going to be two people in that debate. One will be on the offensive, and the other will be on the defensive,” Mr. Cooper said. “Kerry will be on the offensive.”

Still, although public concerns about the United States getting bogged down in Iraq might be on the rise, the Bush campaign is convinced that Mr. Kerry’s shifting positions on the war will neutralize the issue.

Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman said yesterday the president will pound that message home at tomorrow night’s presidential debate and show the expected 50 million viewers that Mr. Bush can “provide clarity and resolve to this challenge.”

“There are difficulties in this war on terror and what is faced every day in the war in Iraq,” Mr. Mehlman told reporters in a conference call. “The question isn’t whether Iraq is an issue in this campaign. It is. The question is which leader is can best confront the war on terror. Right now, they trust the president on this, not John Kerry.”

Both campaigns find support in the polls.

By a slight margin, more voters are dissatisfied with the president’s policy in Iraq than are satisfied, and in the latest ABC News-Washington Post poll, 60 percent think the United States is “bogged down in Iraq.”

In that same poll, voters still give Mr. Bush a 13 percentage-point advantage over Mr. Kerry on who would do better job on Iraq, and a 17 percentage-point lead over Mr. Kerry on the war on terror.

Overall, meanwhile, the Gallup poll has Mr. Bush leading by eight percentage points, 52 percent to 44 percent. That’s fallen from Mr. Bush’s 13-point lead in the same poll two weeks ago, but does not show a redefining of the race after Mr. Kerry’s series of speeches. The daily Rasmussen tracking poll, which shows a much tighter race, showed ups and downs for both men in the 10 days since Mr. Kerry began his strong attack.

On the question of who “takes a clear stand on the issues,” Mr. Bush polled at 59 percent, and Mr. Kerry was far behind at 28 percent.

Mr. Mehlman said such poll results prove the wisdom of their strategy to cast Mr. Bush’s views on Iraq and terror as one of “resolve,” and Mr. Kerry’s as one of “defeatism.” He said that will go over particularly well with some Democrats in key states such as Michigan.

“They have a clear sense of what the president wants to do, and no idea what John Kerry wants to do on Iraq,” Mr. Mehlman said. “They see the president as a strong leader, more decisive. Whether or not they agree with him on every single issue, they trust him. They don’t trust John Kerry.”

Still, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat and House minority whip, said the numbers show a “very volatile” electorate, which is an opening for Mr. Kerry among voters.

“If they get to trust John Kerry more through these three debates, as I think they are going to, I believe that John Kerry is going to be direct, unequivocal and clearly understood in terms of his resolve to defend America and our people,” he said. “I think he is then going to make it very clear that there are steps that need to be taken to make this effort successful.”

Mr. Durbin and other Democrats say Mr. Kerry’s position has been clear throughout, and they say Mr. Bush has gotten away with blaming Mr. Kerry for lacking a plan.

Mr. Durbin summed up the Bush campaign’s argument up: “We’ve driven this bus into a cul-de-sac and Kerry can’t tell you how to get it out, so he can’t be president.”

Not all Democrats, though, think Mr. Kerry is offering much of a choice to voters right now.

“I disagree with Senator Kerry’s look back,” Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, told Paul Bedard of U.S. News & World Report, adding that Mr. Kerry’s call for multilateralism is fine, but not particularly new. “I don’t find much difference between what he is proposing and what President Bush is doing.”

And Republican political consultant Michael Edleman, a longtime friend of Mr. Bush, said the Republicans need not worry about how the situation on the ground in Iraq will affect the debates or the campaign’s final month.

“It doesn’t matter at all. It’s irrelevant,” Mr. Edleman said. “The people understand that war is war. We fight wars every several generations, and we fight them for a reason — to preserve democracy.”

He said Mr. Bush is sitting on the winning argument in the end.

“It’s about the principle of defending liberty,” he said. “It’s not about the day-to-day coverage of the war.

“Bush projects a more forceful presidency who knows that he will do exactly what he says and believes exactly what he says, even if you disagree with him,” he said.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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