For the first time since the quagmire of Vietnam and the humiliating Iranian hostage crisis, it looks like international events rather than economic issues could shape an American Presidential campaign. With violence escalating and U.S. casualties climbing in Iraq, President Bush's conduct of foreign policy is coming under an increasingly harsh light. Like Jimmy Carter and Lyndon B. Johnson before him, Bush's future could be determined by upheavals halfway around the world. "Forces beyond his control may call the tune," says Emory University political scientist Merle Black. "It makes Bush a prisoner of events."
Bush, of course, is struggling mightily to avoid that fate. When the President stepped to the East Room podium on Apr. 13 for only the third prime-time news conference of his Presidency, he hoped to persuade the world that he had done the right thing in invading Iraq -- and demonstrate that he had a clear strategy for building stable self-rule there. Yet while Democratic rival John Kerry faces serious challenges convincing Americans that he is up to the job of Commander-in-Chief, it is Bush who is on the hot seat right now. "It is a perilous time politically for the Administration," says Raphael Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University at Fullerton. "They are defending the crown jewels, and if they lose the [political] strength of 9/11, then everything else falls apart."
Public opinion polls underline Bush's cloudy prospects. Despite a raft of positive economic news, Iraq backlash is causing the President to lose ground with several key electoral blocs -- particularly independents, young voters, and elderly white women. An Apr. 5-8 Gallup Poll showed Kerry with a substantial edge among independent voters: 50%, vs. 36% for Bush and 9% for independent Ralph Nader.
Much of the President's deterioration among swing voters can be tied directly to the spreading violence in Iraq: Just 31% of unaligned voters say things are going well with the intervention. While Bush argues the U.S. effort in Iraq is essentially on track, independents are more likely than either Democrats or Republicans to call for additional U.S. troops. And only 46% of nonpartisan voters now say going to war was worth it, down from 69% last April, after the fall of Baghdad. "In the past, those swing voters have voted their pocketbooks," says independent New Hampshire pollster Dick Bennett. "But now it's Iraq, pure and simple. White House bluster won't work. They want results."
That's cause for concern among some Bush loyalists, who worry not only about the President's prospects but also about a potential Republican party meltdown. Predicts one Senate Republican aide: "If the U.S. does not stop the civil disorder in Iraq, there will be electoral disorder for the GOP."
Still, it's a big leap of logic to argue that a particularly cruel April for Bush paves the way for victory by Kerry and Hill Democrats. For starters, the Massachusetts senator will have to win over voters who doubt his ability to cope with ongoing international crises. A stream of Republican campaign commercials has already had some success in "planting the image that he's a flip-flopper," says former Reagan Chief of Staff Kenneth M. Duberstein. An Apr. 6-7 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll found that voters feel Bush would do a better job than Kerry in combating terrorism, 51% to 33%. By 47% to 34%, those surveyed said the President would do a superior job handling Iraq.
Events in Iraq have scrambled the political equation. A few weeks ago, the Democratic campaign was attacking the President on the economy and the outsourcing of U.S. jobs. Republicans, meanwhile, were trumpeting the declining death toll in Iraq and extolling Bush's steady national-security hand. Now, in a massive political inversion, Democratic firebrands are denouncing Administration incompetence on the international stage, and GOP spinners are talking up the 300,000 new jobs that were created in March. If the Iraq situation takes a decided turn for the better, Bush might be able to take fuller advantage of an economic revival. But if the conflict in Iraq continues to rage through Election Day, security issues could overshadow even the best of economic news. By Richard S. Dunham, with Paula Dwyer and Mike McNamee in Washington