Wednesday, June 30, 2004

President Bush has peeled off a string of victories on the foreign policy front lately that has improved his standing with voters and confounded his critics, especially John Kerry.

Go over the lengthy list of Mr. Kerry’s campaign attacks on the president’s handling of Iraq and his relations with world leaders and Mr. Bush seems to have defused, undercut or co-opted virtually all of them.

Mr. Kerry called for giving the United Nations a bigger role in setting postwar policy in Iraq and working more closely with the world body (which is something Mr. Bush sought anyway. He got U.N. approval before going into Iraq). The president won a unanimous decision in the Security Council last month to support his postwar plan in Iraq. Not an easy task in the often-divided U.N. arena.

Mr. Kerry proposed getting NATO into Iraq to help train Iraqi military forces and, if possible, commit NATO forces to help keep the peace there as the new provisional Iraqi government begins securing the country — something Mr. Bush also sought.

As we saw this past week, Mr. Bush not only got NATO agreement to provide the Iraqis military training but got some of his chief critics to go along, including Germany and France.

Mr. Kerry has been fiercely attacking the Bush administration for the way it has handled the war in Iraq, characterizing it as an abysmal failure every step of the way. With each insurgent attack, with each new casualty, Mr. Kerry saw nothing but chaos and defeat.

But this week’s handoff of authority to the Iraqi provisional government there and the immediate departure of U.S. governing officials was a sharp contrast to Mr. Kerry’s clinical pessimism about Iraq’s future.

Mr. Bush was seen as confident, determined and succeeding in his strategic plan to turn Iraq into a free, democratic country allied with the U.S. and at peace with its neighbors in the Middle East. Mr. Kerry, however, seemed filled with self-doubts, attempting to bridge a precarious balance between his party’s large antiwar bloc and the majority of Americans who want the U.S. to finish the job we set out to do.

The result this week was another foreign policy victory for Mr. Bush’s war on terrorism. Iraqis leaders were taking over the government. They were, with U.S. military backing, accepting increasing responsibility for subduing the terrorists. The country will hold free elections in little more than six months.

Meanwhile, you don’t hear Mr. Bush criticized anymore for pursuing a unilateralist foreign policy in Iraq or anywhere else. The U.N. resolution on Iraq’s future, the NATO agreement to help train Iraq’s militarily and last month’s meeting at Sea Island, Ga., with the Group of Eight world industrial powers showed the president as an internationalist leading the alliance in the war against terror.

But if Mr. Kerry is losing the essential debating points on Iraq, what is left of his larger campaign message? That is, if he still has a compelling message, which many analysts now doubt.

Pollsters in both parties tell me Mr. Kerry’s chief problem is his message, which is too unfocused to appeal to the independent swing voters he will need to beat Mr. Bush.

“What message? Kerry really hasn’t found a compelling message,” said independent pollster John Zogby, who just a month ago predicted Mr. Kerry would win in November.

“Nothing of interest is breaking through on his part. Nuance is not going to win it this year. His base is way out ahead of him and he is going to have to give them something,” Mr. Zogby told me.

Nowhere is Mr. Kerry’s message deficit more evident than in Michigan, a heavily Democratic, unionized, industrial state Al Gore carried by more than 5 points against Mr. Bush in 2000. Now the contest for Michigan’s big 17 electoral votes is a dead heat, despite 6 percent unemployment.

“Kerry still does not have the generic message that works. They are trying to marry the issues of foreign policy with the economy” but without success, said Michigan Democratic pollster Ed Sarpolus. “He does not win on the economy.”

“Health care and education need to be discussed to get the Democratic-leaning voters concerned about health care and education. But those issues are getting diluted by Kerry,” Mr. Sarpolus said.

“Part of it is that Bush has co-opted those issues to some extent and Kerry and the Democrats have not found a way to get them back,” he told me.

There has been some voter movement in the last month, he said, but it has been among independents who were leaning to Mr. Kerry but are now moving to the undecided column. That’s good news for Mr. Bush.

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

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