In one section of his stock stump speech, President Bush frames the 2004 Presidential election as a historic struggle between America's democratic values and the shadowy, barbaric forces behind the global war on terror. Democratic challenger John F. Kerry often reminisces about his Vietnam War service during campaign events, and he likes to recognize comrades-in-arms among those in the crowd. Recently, Kerry gave a policy speech in Phoenix in which he used the word "strength" nearly 30 times -- just to make sure no one mistook his refined bearing for a lack of macho resolve.
What's going on here? Both Bush and Kerry are warily circling each other in an attempt to tap into Americans' concerns about two closely intertwined issues -- homeland security and the preemptive war in Iraq.
The chasm between the two combatants couldn't be greater. Bush's GOP allies charge that Democrats are politicizing the war to gain short-term advantage and that their increasingly strident critiques of the war and domestic preparedness are borderline unpatriotic. Kerry & Co. fire right back, calling the war a gigantic foreign-policy blunder that has estranged the U.S. from long-time European allies, inflamed Muslim public opinion, and actually rendered the homeland more vulnerable to terrorist retaliation.
CRACKING UP. So far, the Democrats are getting the best of this exchange, largely because the U.S. occupation in Iraq has dissolved into an unholy mess on the eve of a scheduled June 30 transfer of power to local authorities. With support for Operation Iraqi Freedom plunging, Bush's job approval rating has nosedived to 42% in one poll and to the mid-40s in others. This is the lowest ebb of his Presidency -- and dangerous territory for an in incumbent just six months away from Election Day.
Indeed, the pummeling Bush is taking over mismanagement of the war and fiascoes such as the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal is so intense, it's driving his poll numbers down on a broad array of issues -- including his handling of an economy that's humming with vitality and job creation. As a result, the Republican grassroots is growing decidedly uneasy over an election that once looked like a slam-dunk against a flip-flopping Massachusetts liberal.
Republican leaders in Washington, naturally, are keeping a stiff upper lip, insisting that polls six months away from Election Day are meaningless. But let your fingers do the clicking over to the conservative chat rooms online, and you'll find the Right side of the Web crackling with anxiety -- and featuring discussion topics such as, "What If Kerry Wins?"
SLIDING NUMBERS. The latest polls spell nothing but trouble for Bush. A Democracy Corps survey released on May 19 finds that only 37% of Americans feel the country is going in the right direction, 56% the wrong direction. Some 54% wanted a significantly different path for the country, while 42% opted to stay the course. Rarely has a President with these kinds of numbers bounced back in November -- though Election 2004 is so unusual, it could confound many pollsters.
Bush's aggressive pursuit of the war on terrorism is practically the only thing keeping him afloat in a sea of troubles. His handling of homeland security in an April Newsweek poll was 59% favorable to 35% unfavorable. On terrorism, more recent surveys show him sliding. A Time-CNN poll conducted May 12-13 found that 46% of those surveyed gave him good marks for handling the war on terrorism, down from 65% last July and 72% a year ago.
Bush still has an advantage over Kerry, though it has narrowed. By 49% to 42%, Americans in the Time-CNN poll thought the President would be better than his Democratic rival in keeping terrorists at bay. But back in March, Bush had a 27-point advantage there. So even on his signature issue, the President i s giving ground.
SPEAKS FOR ITSELF. Why is that? Rather than anything Kerry has done, a flood of adverse publicity has swamped the Bushies. The independent commission delving into the September 11 terrorist attacks has eroded White House credibility. A spate of kiss-and-tell books gave a damaging picture of an Administration riven by infighting and inattentive to al Qaeda's threat in Bush's early going. What's more, the Vietnamization of the U.S. occupation of Iraq has many Americans dubious about the President's contention in the run-up to war that a preemptive strike against Saddam Hussein would make the world safer from terror networks.
All along, Kerry -- who voted for the second Iraq war but has offered differing explanations about why he did so -- has insisted that a hasty and unilateral assault on Saddam would backfire. Today, events on the ground in Iraq seem to bear that prediction out. But to put this in perspective, it's not that the barnstorming Kerry -- who can barely make the front page of the newspaper these days due to the crush of bad news from Iraq -- has made his critique into a cutting argument. Rather, events in an Iraq that seems to be spinning out of control have made the case far more eloquently than any campaign speech.
The wild card in the election is the possibility of a significant terrorist attack of the type that upended the ruling government in Spain. But the reaction in the U.S. would likely be quite different. Americans traditionally have rallied around the flag and the Commander-in-Chief in the heat of battle, and experts believe that a strike close to Election Day could buttress support for the incumbent.
READY FOR A JOLT. Then again, since September 11, it seems like every day has been uncharted territory for the U.S., and few of the experts really know what the political effect of an attack might be -- especially since it would have the subsidiary effect of overshadowing politics and silencing campaign dialogue.
One thing that's distressingly clear is that voters are steeling themselves for just such an eventuality. Increasingly, they tell pollsters they believe al Qaeda will attack again, and soon. The White House is trying to inoculate Americans for such an event by issuing repeated warnings.
On the stump, Kerry is simply repeating his contention that Bush's Iraq adventure has inflamed the very Islamic fundamentalism the U.S. sought to combat. That's a point he'll have to make softly now, because if and when the flames of terrorism flare again on U.S. soil, he'll be constrained from pointing a finger of blame in the immediate aftermath.
It's a grisly bit of political calculus, all right. But then, America has seldom seen an election like the one that's now racing toward the summer nominating conventions amid expressions of anxiety, uncertainty -- and lots of cloudy crystal balls. By Lee Walczak in Washington, D.C., with Richard S. Dunham