President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq has drawn praise from many Democrats in recent weeks. But some members of the opposition are now belatedly questioning Mr. Bush's recent speech aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, contending it was a costly political gimmick aimed at helping the president win re-election next year.
In political terms, it is hard to beat the image of a U.S. president landing in a military jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier and giving a nationally televised speech saluting the troops for their victory in Iraq. "Because of you, our nation is more secure. Because of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free," he said.
It took a few days, but some Democrats are now grumbling that the president's appearance aboard the carrier, Lincoln, was nothing more than a costly made-for-television political gimmick designed to win him votes in the 2004 presidential election.
New Jersey Congressman Robert Menendez made the case for the Democrats on NBC's Today program. "So, I think that to go ahead and spend a million dollars in taxpayers' money for, in essence, what will be a campaign commercial during the next presidential election, delay the homecoming of 4,000 troops when you could have visited them in their port 39 miles away, just simply doesn't make sense, doesn't make sense to the taxpayers," he said.
White House officials insist the president's visit to the carrier and his prime time television speech proclaiming the end of major combat operations in Iraq legitimately fall under his duties as commander in chief.
Presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said "more than 100 Americans in our military paid the ultimate price to defend us, and this president is proud to have visited the [USS] Abraham Lincoln, to have flown onto to it to say, 'thank you' in person to those who defend our country," he said.
Public opinion polls indicate the president has a huge advantage on foreign policy and national security issues compared to the nine Democrats running for the White House.
But political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said Democrats do not want to concede any issues to the president, as the 2004 election cycle draws near. "I don't think the Democrats, as a party, fear this president at the moment. They respect what he did on foreign policy. Many of them, though not all, are giving him credit in that area. But they just feel that he is fundamentally vulnerable in terms of taxes and priorities," he said.
Other analysts believe the complaint about the carrier visit is proof that Democrats are almost desperate to find something to weaken the president's advantage on national security.
Washington commentator David Aikman, a regular guest on VOA's 'Issues in the News' program, said "one of the things that really worries the Democrats is that the image of Bush landing and wearing his flight suit and getting out of the plane, with a helmet under his arm -- it reinforces the impression that most Americans have that, on issues of national security, the Republicans just do a better job. And that is not an image that any Democratic contender for the presidency wants to have ringing in the backs of people's heads, when they go to the voting machine."
A recent debate in South Carolina showed that all nine Democratic presidential contenders are willing to criticize the president's record on foreign policy and national security.
But at the same time, most of them hammered away at the president's handling of the economy, believing that issue to be their best chance to deny Mr. Bush a second term next year.