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War dominates campaign

Claire Heininger | Friday, March 26, 2004

Rarely does a presidential election turn contentious before Labor Day – not to mention before Memorial Day – but with the Iraq War still fresh in voters’ minds, both the George W. Bush and John Kerry campaigns have already begun to escalate their claims about what has occurred in the broken country and what should happen next.Bush standing firmEight months before Americans go to the polls, and on the first anniversary of the United States’ declaration of war on Iraq, the Bush administration’s stance remains essentially the same as it was one year ago. The president has repeatedly insisted that the Iraq War represented a significant step in the war on terror, and his speeches have consistently sought links between the Saddam Hussein government and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks – a period when Bush’s approval ratings soared.”That’s their strong point, that’s their best hope for beating Kerry,” said Jack Colwell, professor of American Studies at Notre Dame and political columnist for the South Bend Tribune. Colwell said that since current polls reveal skepticism about Bush’s record on the economy and other domestic issues, the best strategy for the incumbent is to remind voters of the “decisive leader” they saw in the 9/11 aftermath.”People rallied behind the president in a time of crisis,” Colwell said, adding that Republicans are not only trying to push the war on terror as their party’s area of strength, but also as Democrats’ chief weakness. And with a candidate whose policies and identity are not yet ingrained in voters’ minds, the race is on to define John Kerry.Defining Kerry”When you actually ask voters what makes Kerry more ‘electable,’ they can’t really tell you why,” said Louis Ayala, assistant professor of political science at Notre Dame. While the Democratic primaries made it apparent that the Massachusetts senator would be better competition for Bush than would John Edwards or Howard Dean, Kerry still lacks a clear-cut stance. “Kerry is in a tough spot, because criticism of sitting president isn’t enough,” Ayala said, adding that he must develop a specific and hard-hitting policy of his own in order to succeed.”[President George W.] Bush is insinuating that Kerry doesn’t have a policy,” Ayala said. “Bush has a coherent policy, but Kerry’s got to define his … He can’t hem and haw.”A difficult challenge, said political science professor Peri Arnold, since American entanglement in Iraq has been so nuanced, and voter support so uneven.”He’s got to find a perspective for critiquing the administration while supporting an American effort – it’s politically very tricky,” Arnold said. “If nothing else, even for a strident critic of the war, it’s like saying you break it you buy it.”We bought Iraq. We broke it. Now we’ve got to put it back together.”Arnold stressed that while Bush’s rhetoric has been plain in support of the war – “we get a lot of black and white, good and evil language from the president,” he said – Kerry’s criticism of it will call for a more intricate analysis.Vulnerabilities in Bush campaignArnold pointed to three areas of vulnerability in the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq that the Kerry campaign has begun to target, especially the initial justification of the war on the grounds that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and displayed definite links to al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. The absence of concrete proof in both of these aspects, Arnold said, was problematic before Kerry’s name even appeared on the national radar.”It’s a major question of credibility and accountability,” he said. “With all these controversies put in context of campaign, you get a whirlwind of charges – and a very strong reason for the administration to defend itself and find a compelling rationale to explain what is being done.”That defense has been straightforward and will continue to be through November, said Dave Campbell, assistant professor of political science.”It will essentially be what we’ve already seen – Bush will be adamant that it was the right thing to do,” he said. Campbell said that since the Iraq War is not widely unpopular – pointing out that “the average American is still saying he’s in favor of it” – Kerry will have to rely on his foreign affairs background to convince the public that he could have fought it with more United Nations input and support.Arnold agreed that perceived unilateralism on the part of the Bush administration could be another area in which Kerry will try to distance himself from existing policies. If Kerry is able to convince voters that America rushed into a preemptive, individualistic war, Arnold said, the Iraq conflict could be extended into a larger criticism of Bush’s military and security record.”There has been a huge expenditure of wealth and soldiers,” he said, then identified a critical distinction that voters will have to make before they go to the polls.”Is the Iraq war a major step in war on terror or is it a distraction?”The answer may become clearer, Ayala said, after the new Iraqi government’s official transition to power takes place in June. A Challenging TransitionAyala said that any slipup – or worse, violence correlated with the shift – will face heightened media scrutiny.”Everything comes down to June,” he said. “The press is going to have its ears perked up.”Campbell, however, downplayed the significance of the turnover, saying that “there will still be a lot of hand-holding on the part of the United States.” Arnold agreed, and added that while attempts at a democratic government and stable political process will be vital steps for the region, the United States’ duty to protect and assist Iraq will not lessen.”A pre-constitutional arrangement … doesn’t make Iraq a more governable place, it just gives the Iraqis a shot at it,” Arnold said, citing a “badly degraded infrastructure” as a result of decades of government under deposed dictator Saddam Hussein.”On a basic level, we’re still stuck – and if we to try to leave, I think that would be the height of irresponsibility.”The transition will also come during a time when voter interest in elections traditionally wanes before spiking again around Labor Day. As recent television ads have demonstrated, however, this campaign has become heated early – and ugly fast.Arnold said that Bush’s $150 million in campaign finances to spend before September will mostly be directed toward painting a negative picture of John Kerry, a practice he believes will grate on voter interest.”I think it’s a bad situation for the electorate to ramp up eight months before the election,” he said. “My real fear is that this would turn voters off .”Campbell expressed similar concerns about voter exhaustion, but said he didn’t think either party had the momentum to sustain such a tense exchange throughout the summer – unless, he added, unforeseen circumstances throw voters for a loop.”If the body bags accumulate, the war’s popularity will drop,” he said. As long as most voters do not harbor hostility about Iraq, Bush will continue to emphasize his commander in chief role, and Kerry will continue to walk the fine line between precise evaluation and all-out opposition, Campbell said.”Kerry has a much more complicated position,” he said. “If he’s too critical he becomes another Howard Dean.”