One axiom of this campaign year is that whenever Iraq has dominated the news, President Bush has suffered politically. What Democrats and Republicans are asking this week is how much the latest bad news from Iraq will set back a president who emerged from his convention stronger than at any point in the general election.
Aides to John F. Kerry are suggesting that the Massachusetts senator has turned a corner with newly aggressive attacks on Bush's Iraq policies. It may be too early to declare that he has, but Kerry appeared more confident on the campaign trail this week in framing his differences with Bush on Iraq, and some Democrats believe he has weathered what could have become a decisive moment in the presidential contest.
"Ten days ago, we were at a huge fork in the road," said Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin. "This could have become 1988 [when Bush's father took control over Michael S. Dukakis shortly after Labor Day] and was a real moment of danger for the Kerry campaign. In a lot of ways, he's survived it and we're back to a very competitive race again."
Just how competitive is an open question, for while Kerry may have put himself in a stronger position to litigate Iraq with Bush in their upcoming debates, he carries scars from months of attacks that may be difficult to overcome, given the limited amount of time left.
Bush's advisers argue that the president enjoys a small, but solid, lead and that negative impressions of Kerry complicate his hopes of turning the race decisively in his direction. Democrats outside the Kerry campaign agree that the challenger still has considerable work to do.
Kerry has seized on Iraq as a lifeline for a candidacy that only a few weeks ago appeared to be reeling. Beginning with a speech in New York on Monday, Kerry has launched his most sustained criticism of Bush on Iraq and aides promise the Iraq focus -- and the more hard-hitting posture -- will continue indefinitely as Kerry attempts to claw his way back into a contest that threatened to slide decisively away from him.
Kerry advisers believe the new line of attacks -- designed to put Bush on the defensive and take the focus away from Kerry's own, sometimes contradictory, record -- has been an important shift that will help to set up the first presidential debate next Thursday in Miami.
"I think both Senator Kerry's arguments have done that and also the reality of what's happening in Iraq right now," Kerry adviser Michael McCurry told reporters yesterday. "That would by no means suggest it's the sole reason. It's also the fact that it's something people are very clearly seeing every evening on the news and something that's troubling them very much."
The Democratic challenger was on the attack again yesterday, coming out to speak to reporters in Columbus, Ohio, shortly after Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's speech to a joint meeting of Congress. Kerry charged that Bush and Allawi have tried this week at the United Nations and in Washington to put the "best face" on an increasingly dire situation. He said Bush is stubbornly clinging to policies that need changing and described the administration as in disarray over what to do.
Kerry may never be able to explain away the apparent contradictions in his own record, but his new line of attack has another purpose, which is to put the focus on Bush. "The president wants to shift the topic, and I'm not going to let him shift topic," Kerry said in a news conference on Tuesday in Jacksonville, Fla. "This is about President Bush and his decisions and his choices."
This has led to an increasingly negative debate between the two campaigns that is moving at a dizzying pace. Bush's campaign sought to put the focus back on Kerry's shifting positions on Iraq on Wednesday with an ad showing Kerry windsurfing to the "Blue Danube" waltz that said the Democratic nominee's positions shift "whichever way the wind blows." Within hours, Kerry's campaign responded with an ad scolding the president for offering a "juvenile" ad on the most serious issue in the campaign, and then followed up with another yesterday attacking Bush's policies.
Individual national polls have painted a confusing -- even conflicting -- portrait of the race, with some polls showing Bush's lead in double digits and others showing the race tied. Taken together, they suggest that the race has settled into a track with Bush enjoying a lead of three to five percentage points -- just at the edge of the polls' margins of error -- and that Kerry remains weakened from months of attacks by the Bush campaign and its allies.
Bill McInturff, a Republican pollster who conducts the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll with Democrat Peter Hart, said two things are notable. One is that Bush has steadily inched up in the polls over the past few months. The other is that it might not take much for the race to shift back. "I'd rather be ahead by three to five points than behind, but nobody should believe that three to five points is a margin that could not change."
Garin, who is conducting polls for the Democratic National Committee, said events in Iraq, more than anything else, have provided Kerry with breathing room to overtake Bush. "The dynamic [a few weeks ago] was that voters were saying this race might well be over and they took a look at Bush and said we're not ready for it to be over," he said. "What was important about this period was that, in order to put it away, Bush had to make voters comfortable with him and that just did not happen."
But Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said the reality now is that voters are even less comfortable with Kerry than when Bush was damaged politically this spring by events in Iraq. When insurgent attacks and U.S. casualties mounted in the spring, he said, people gave Kerry the benefit of the doubt as a leader because they did not know him well. "Today we have a 15-point advantage on who the public trusts on Iraq," Dowd said. "It no longer is automatic that if people perceive something is going wrong in Iraq, it will benefit Kerry, because Kerry is damaged on Iraq."
The debates offer Kerry his best and perhaps only opportunity to change the race decisively, and his advisers believe that this week's events have set the stage for him to take maximum advantage of those prime-time encounters. But Bush's advisers say the more Iraq is the center of the presidential campaign, the more confident they are that voters will side with the president.
Both agree that Iraq -- what happens there and how voters view the candidates on the issue -- is likely to determine the outcome of the election.
Staff writer Lois Romano, traveling with Kerry, contributed to this report.