Much fun has been made of President Bush's persistent whining in the first presidential debate last week about how hard he has been working as president. But now it turns out that focus may be part of a calculated message the Bush campaign wants to put out in the next few weeks.

For, while Bush was working hard in Florida, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was also hard at work last week in Atlanta, talking to some Boys and Girls Club kids the day after the debate. Powell couldn't match the president's 22 mentions of "hard" work, but the secretary spoke for only about 20 minutes. Still, he mentioned working or studying hard 14 times.

He recalled his parents saying they worked hard so he should study hard. And when one 12-year-old asked if he liked his job, Powell said: "Yeah. It's too hard. The work is too hard, though, but I like it."

He asked the youngster what time she gets up each day. She said she gets up at 6:20 a.m. and does homework at night.

"I get up at 5," he noted, and "I do two hours of homework every night" and "I get to 'school' at 6:30. So it's a hard job. I work very hard. I work from 6:30 in the morning till about 7 at night, then I go home and I have two hours of homework every night. So it's a very hard job, but it's important and very exciting.

" . . . So I like the job very much. Some days it's really hard, though. Some days it's really hard and, you know, you're sad because you didn't do everything you wanted to get done that day . . .

"The hardest part is the cameras are always watching you," he said. There is a lot of excitement, "but it's also hard work with long days . . . great deal of satisfaction and a lot of hard work."

Really, really hard. A lot harder than clearing brush.

This could be the first time Powell has been on-message in months.

Dems Counter Cheney -- From a Distance

Speaking of the debates, the Kerry folks are taking great umbrage at Vice President Cheney's statements that he never linked 9/11 to Saddam Hussein and that he had never met Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) before their Tuesday debate. The Democrats say those were lies.

Come on. Get a grip. The shots were perfectly timed, beautifully delivered and very effective. Edwards was left bewildered and knocked off stride.

Let's face it. The Kerry folks are just jealous. Now they're even disputing Cheney's set-up line accusing Edwards of being AWOL from the Senate. "Now, in my capacity as vice president," Cheney said, "I am the president of Senate, the presiding officer. I'm up in the Senate most Tuesdays when they're in session."

Some Democrats claim Cheney presided on only a handful of occasions in the 125 Tuesdays the Senate was in session since 2001, while Edwards attended more than 95 percent of all roll-call votes.

More to the point, Cheney cast six tie-breaking votes and Edwards was there for each one.

Beyond that, Cheney came up Tuesdays for the weekly GOP luncheon, but it's well known what he'd say to any Democrat who ventured by. Ask Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.).

There's No Place Like Zone

So you're heading off to Iraq to work on reconstruction or elections or another fine activity and you're a teensy bit worried about the security situation. One fine guide that has been reporting weekly on that is the Kroll Middle East Risk Monitor.

Oddly, though, the risk consulting company doesn't have its usual section on Iraq this week -- maybe because last week's was so gloomily off-message? -- and scarcely mentions the place.

What to do?

Not to worry. The State Department's "Post Reports" offers a comprehensive guide to the area, with information about climate, commerce and population and helpful observations for visitors.

For example, the International Zone (formerly known as the Green Zone) is "the heavily guarded diplomatic/government corner of central Baghdad that houses Iraqi citizens, Coalition partners, and U.S. forces," the mid-September report explains. The four-square-mile area "is commonly referred to as the 'Ultimate Gated Community' due to the numerous armed checkpoints, coils of razor wire, chain link fences, and the fact it is surrounded by 'T-Walls' (reinforced and blast-proof concrete slabs)."

Pretty safe and, "contrary to popular belief, the International Zone is lush and tropical with very little humidity. The area is garnished with world-class date producing palms, various fruit and other exotic trees." Nothing like a hot date under an exotic tree.

Of course, "the security situation throughout Iraq remains unstable," the report says, and "insurgent elements continue to be extremely active, and they continue to target not only Coalition Forces but civilians who are viewed" as helping the United States. "The total number of attacks in August . . . was nearly 2,800 . . . the high-water mark in terms of sheer numbers of attacks. The road that runs from [the airport to the International Zone] continues to be the scene of improvised explosive devices, small arms fires, and RPG attacks, despite concerted efforts by the military to secure the route."

Sounds as though it's probably best to stick to the International Zone, although even in the zone "there are daily indirect fire attacks from mortars, rockets, and RPGs. Another concern is the active effort to kidnap Americans and other non-Iraqis for ransom by criminal elements, extortion by political elements, or for videotaped murder by terrorists."

Also, these days "any movement outside the International Zone must be in armored vehicles with military escort, so outdoor touring activities are non-existent."

So, better ship over your armored SUV.