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White House at stake in war

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2004

WASHINGTON The turmoil in Iraq is changing the political equation for President Bush and Democratic rival John Kerry.

The war is eroding public support for Bush on national security once believed his strongest issue and helping to drive down his approval ratings. In some polls, they are the lowest of his presidency.

But attention on the war is also making it harder for Kerry to define himself for voters or promote his domestic priorities.

Images of Iraqi prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers, the gruesome deaths of American civilians at the hands of Iraqi militants, a rising death toll and other calamities have overtaken the political agendas of both parties.

Strategists from both parties had suggested the election probably would come down to a few states, perhaps turning on different issues in different states.

Some analysts now are suggesting the race could broaden into a national referendum on Bush's Iraq policy.

Bush and Kerry spent last week stressing domestic issues. Bush campaigned on education, Kerry on health care.

It was hard for their message to get out when local and regional news increasingly is influenced by pictures and stories from Iraq.

A story on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's surprise visit to Baghdad was the top front-page story, for instance, in Friday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. An account of Kerry's visit to Little Rock on Thursday received lesser billing.

Events in Iraq ''have certainly dominated a significant amount of our public discourse,'' said Marc Racicot, chair of the Bush-Cheney campaign.

As president, Bush has the ability to drive Iraq news coverage; for example, his decision to send the embattled Rumsfeld to Iraq.

With fewer options as the challenger, Kerry has called for Rumsfeld's resignation and accused Bush of running an ''extraordinarily mismanaged and ineptly prosecuted war.''

The Massachusetts senator also has walked a cautious line as he decides how hard to go after Bush as commander in chief without risking a backlash.

Kerry already has drawn criticism from Republicans who accuse him of politicizing the prisoner-abuse issue.

''To suggest that this is a political issue is to fundamentally misunderstand the gravity of the situation,'' said Kerry pollster Mark Mellman. ''Voters recognize that this is a very serious issue. They recognize that Republicans are raising questions, that independents are raising questions, that all Americans are raising questions about this.''

Some conservative lawmakers and commentators are even beginning to express public misgivings over the Iraq mission, citing intelligence lapses and Pentagon decision-making.

Bush sought to address their concerns in a speech to the American Conservative Union. Democrats immediately pounced. ''Now he has to go back and spend time shoring up his base,'' said Democratic party chief Terry McAuliffe.

Polls show that more people are becoming disillusioned by the war. So far, however, that has not particularly benefited Kerry.

A poll released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center found that a majority of respondents 51 percent said for the first time that the war in Iraq was not going well.

Pew Director Andrew Kohut said in an interview that there are ''a lot of independent and swing voters'' who could decide the election, but that Kerry has been having difficulty making inroads because their attention is on the president.

Voters must first decide whether Bush deserves re-election before determining whether Kerry is a qualified alternative, Kohut said. That could give high importance to this fall's televised debates.

Iraq also may command more attention because the economy, which usually is the No. 1 election issue, seems to be recovering after years of weakness. Job growth, for example was strong in March and April.

Of course, Iraq cannot continue to work against both Bush and Kerry. As Bush's father, the former president, once observed, the thing about undecided voters is that ''eventually they'll go one way or the other.''

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.



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