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It’s a Tie: Bush Loses on Iraq, Kerry on Image

Right now, the presidential race boils down to a question of which sinks faster: President Bush’s public support on Iraq or Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) image as a potential commander in chief.

After furious pounding of both contenders — Bush, by events in Iraq and Kerry, by a combination of his own errors and Bush attacks — the two stand in a virtual dead heat in the polls. [IMGCAP(1)]

The CBS-New York Times poll, which has a reputation for slightly oversampling Democrats, gave Kerry a lead over Bush of 46 percent to 44 percent last week.

The liberal Democracy Corps poll conducted April 19-22 gave Bush a 1 point lead, 49-48, and a Fox News poll conducted April 21-22 put Bush up 43-42.

The CBS poll showed a sharp and broad decline in domestic support for Bush’s Iraq policies, while the Democracy Corps reported that Kerry has yet been unable to capitalize on Bush’s woes.

Some Democratic activists tell me they think Kerry has allowed himself — or, specifically, allowed his activities after returning from Vietnam and his voting record on defense issues — to become the main topic of the campaign, rather than Bush and his failures.

“We shouldn’t be talking about Kerry’s anything,” said one experienced pro. “We should be talking about Bush’s record. But we aren’t.”

This is not a unanimous opinion among Democrats. Some Kerry advisers say that the Bush campaign, by impugning Kerry’s Vietnam-era record, is playing to Kerry’s strength — the war-hero status that he has made a mainstay of his campaign and is beginning to re-emphasize in a series of biographical ads.

As a citizen and professional kibbutzer, I think Vietnam is being totally overplayed as a 2004 issue. Yes, Kerry was a decorated hero. Yes, Bush dodged Vietnam service and may have missed some meetings as a National Guard pilot.

So what? What really counts is the two candidates’ capacity to solve America’s problems, foreign and domestic, in 2005 and beyond.

The domestic economy seems to be improving to the point where it will eventually work to Bush’s advantage as an issue, even if it doesn’t yet. The CBS poll showed that 55 percent of voters think the economy is now in good shape, but only 39 percent approve of Bush’s handling of it.

Iraq is emerging as the crucial issue of the campaign. It deserves to be. It is the centerpiece of Bush’s entire foreign policy of pre-emptive war and Middle East conversion to democracy. If the United States succeeds in Iraq, Bush will stand as one of America’s great foreign policy presidents.

But the stakes are so high that if U.S. policy fails, Bush will stand as a catastrophic failure. By overreaching and falling short, even in a noble cause, he will have left Iraq in chaos, emboldened America’s enemies and undermined America’s standing in the world.

At the moment, if the CBS poll is to be believed, Americans are losing faith in the enterprise, although there’s no evidence that Kerry is seen as having better answers than Bush does.

On the one-year anniversary of Bush’s declaration of the end of major combat operations — but with U.S. casualties continuing to mount — the CBS poll shows that more Americans (48 percent) now think it was a mistake to have gotten involved in Iraq than not (46 percent).

The poll indicates that a plurality of voters think Iraq was not — as Bush has claimed — a threat requiring immediate action or a major part of the war on terror. Sixty percent think efforts to stabilize Iraq are going “badly.”

By 58 percent to 32 percent, voters think Bush lacks a plan for rebuilding Iraq and a similar number doubt he knows how to transfer power to the Iraqis.

Bush’s approval rating on handling Iraq has dropped from 57 percent in December 2003 to 41 percent now. His rating on foreign policy has dropped from 54 percent to 40 percent. And his overall job approval is at 46 percent, the lowest of his presidency.

On the other hand, while only 28 percent of voters have “a lot” of confidence in Bush’s ability to make right decisions about Iraq, only 18 percent have confidence in Kerry. Kerry’s basic plan for Iraq — to turn civilian management over to the United Nations and other countries — does not seem to be winning overwhelming popular support.

Moreover, Bush’s attacks and Kerry’s own mistakes have taken a toll. The Democracy Corps poll reported that “overall, Kerry’s personal standing has continued to weaken and his negative ratings have jumped 14 points over the past two months.”

Democrats allege that the Bush campaign has leveled vicious attacks on his service in Vietnam, but that’s not true. Some veterans have questioned his deserving one of his three Purple Heart awards, but former Bush aide Karen Hughes and other GOP officials have concentrated on his post-service anti-war activities.

The heaviest official criticism has been directed at Kerry’s voting record on defense, which is fair game. Kerry seems to have lost his cool under attack and has started blasting Bush’s National Guard service, which he said he’d never do.

So, bottom line — which cuts deepest? Iraq or Kerry’s flaws? I’d say Iraq. But at the moment, despite the bad news from over there, the latest state-by-state polls indicate that in the electoral college race, Bush is ahead, 310-228.

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