War in Iraq dominates Bush presidency, re-election bid

Posted: Monday, August 30, 2004

NEW YORK War is hell on a presidency. And it plays havoc with presidential campaigns.

President Bush led the nation through the Sept. 11 attacks, against the Taliban and into Iraq three defining moments that have brought his political fortunes full circle to the same middling job approval rating he held Sept. 10, 2001. At the opening of his nominating convention, supporters can't help but wonder how much stronger Bush would be politically had he kept the war on terrorism out of Iraq.

''War is hard,'' Bush adviser Karen Hughes says. ''Even when it's right, it's difficult. It takes a political toll.''

The numbers show it:

By a 3-to-1 margin, people think the war in Iraq increased rather than decreased the threat of terrorism.

Six in 10 say Bush does not have a clear plan for bringing the Iraq war to a successful resolution.

A total of 969 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, including 831 since Bush stood before a ''Mission Accomplished'' sign and declared an end to major combat on May 1, 2003.

Nearly 40 percent of the slain soldiers came from political battleground states. In the 20 states where Bush and rival John Kerry focus their time and money, each death has been a dominant story in the local media. In the three most critical states to the president's re-election bid Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio 128 soldiers have died in Iraq, or about 13 percent of the total.

''I'm just not sure I can trust him anymore,'' said Chris Flaig, a Philadelphia rental car agency worker who voted for Bush in 2000. Flaig says he knows two soldiers in Iraq, and is friends with somebody who knew a slain soldier. Such few degrees-of-separation stories come up in almost any conversation with swing voters such as Flaig.

''This war colors everything,'' he says. ''It may tip my vote against him.''

But it may not, because like many voters, Flaig says he's unimpressed with Kerry's stand on Iraq. He doesn't understand it because the Democrat hasn't always been consistent.

Kerry, a four-term Massachusetts senator, voted against the 1991 Persian Gulf War led by Bush's father. In the late 1990s, he favored the ouster of Saddam Hussein, citing evidence that the Iraqi leader had weapons of mass destruction.

Gearing up for a presidential run, Kerry voted in 2002 to give Bush the authority to invade Iraq, when about 60 percent of the public supported the president's job performance, the war on terror was politically popular and Democrats didn't want to look weak on defense.

As the invasion approached, Kerry accused Bush of rushing to war without the backing of allies. Advisers said he felt political pressure from rival Howard Dean, who had tapped a deep vein of anti-war sentiment in the Democratic Party. Months later, at the height of his primary fight against Dean, Kerry voted against an $87 billion aid package for Iraq and Afghanistan.

At almost every campaign stop, Bush tweaks Kerry for saying he voted for the funding bill before voting against it. ''That's not the way they talk here in the Panhandle of Florida,'' Bush said Aug. 10.

The Republican incumbent wants to raise doubts about Kerry's strength and credibility, particularly among voters who say they are open to persuasion. In Associated Press-Ipsos polling, two-thirds of persuadable voters disapprove of Bush's handling of Iraq. Yet, those same up-for-grabs voters are just as likely as other Americans to find Bush to be strong and honest.

While they concede Iraq has hurt Bush politically, his advisers say the war has focused voters on national security, an issue that favors Republicans and incumbents, rather than traditionally Democratic issues such as education and health care.

In Pew Research Center polling, 51 percent of Americans approved of Bush's job performance just before the Sept. 11 attacks. The rating climbed to the 80s in the days after the attacks and during the war in Afghanistan. It was in the low 60s when Congress gave him approval to oust Saddam; the mid-50s just before the invasion; the mid-60s and 70s when the war began and Baghdad fell, then a steady slide as the death toll mounted.

As he stands before a divided nation, accepting the Republican nomination four miles from Ground Zero, the president's job approval rating is where it was just before the attacks. About half the nation approves and about half doesn't. Both candidates have suffered collateral damage from the war.

Bush now acknowledges that he miscalculated how fiercely insurgents would fight after the initial ''catastrophic success'' of U.S. troops. Perhaps he should have heeded the words of his father, who pushed Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991 but decided against pushing toward Baghdad to oust the Iraqi leader.

''Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land,'' the elder Bush wrote in a book published before his son became president. ''It would have been a dramatically different and perhaps barren outcome.''

Ron Fournier has covered national politics and the White House since 1993.

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