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Foreign Policy, Security Remain Central US Election Issues - 2004-03-19


The one-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq serves as a reminder that foreign policy and national security issues are expected to remain front and center in the U.S. presidential election campaign.

For the president, the one-year anniversary of Iraq is an opportunity to remind voters of his record on national security and the continuing threat of terrorism. "The war on terror is not a figure of speech," he said. "It is an inescapable calling of our generation. The terrorists are offended, not merely by our policies; they are offended by our existence as free nations."

Public opinion polls suggest that while the president's overall approval ratings have declined in recent months, voters still approve of his handling of the war on terrorism by a margin of two to one.

That presents a challenge for his expected opponent in the November election, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Senator Kerry has vowed to confront the president on both the war on terrorism and the situation in Iraq, as he did in a Washington speech this past week.

"We are still bogged down in Iraq, and the administration stubbornly holds to failed unilateral policies that drive potential, significant, important, long-standing allies away from us," said John Kerry.

The Bush campaign sees the president's record on national security as perhaps Mr. Bush's greatest political asset. At the same time, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top Republicans have begun the process of questioning Senator Kerry's record on national security, including his vote against the 1991 war to liberate Kuwait.

"Had the decision belonged to Senator Kerry, Saddam Hussein would still be in power today in Iraq.," he said. "In fact, Saddam Hussein would almost certainly still be in control of Kuwait."

But the combative tone of the charges and countercharges and the new attacks on Senator Kerry are troubling to at least one Republican.

Arizona Senator John McCain defended Senator Kerry's record in an interview on NBC's Today program.

"I do not believe that he is necessarily weak on defense," said John McCain. "I don't agree with him on some issues, clearly. But I decry the negativism that is going on on both sides. The American people don't need it, and the end result will be lower voter turnout, particularly among younger Americans."

Many political analysts believe national security is a strong point in the Bush record and should work to his advantage in the November election.

Karlyn Bowman monitors U.S. public opinion for the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington. She says the public, at least for the moment, would still prefer the president's approach on Iraq, despite the problems there.

"In the new ABC News-Washington Post poll, just 46 percent, a career low, approve of the way that Bush is handling the situation there [in Iraq]," she said. "But, in a new Gallup poll, 54 percent thought that Bush would do a better job of handling the situation there. Thirty-nine percent said that Kerry would."

A number of analysts also believe that it was concern among Democrats about national security issues that caused them to flock to Senator Kerry during the Democratic primaries. Mr. Kerry is a decorated Vietnam War veteran with years of experience in foreign and domestic policy.

Norman Ornstein tracks political trends at the American Enterprise Institute. He says Democrats decided early on that they needed to run a candidate who could compete with the president on national security and foreign policy issues. "The sense of vulnerability is there," he said. "The understanding on the part of everybody that there is evil out there in the world, and evil people who want to strike at our strength, right in our heartland, is strong enough now that, I think, even more than during the Cold War era, national security credentials are important for a presidential candidate."

Political strategists also predict that the Bush re-election effort will continue to focus on his role as commander-in-chief right up until the election in November.

Newsweek magazine senior political correspondent Howard Fineman spoke recently on NBC's Today program.

"Because, despite the bombings in Baghdad, and despite the bombings in Madrid, and despite the questions about weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq], the president and his advisers think that his best calling card [political advantage] is as a war president, and his best argument for the American people for re-election is that he has been a stalwart in the war [on terrorism]," he said. "That is going to be their argument. They would much rather talk about that than unemployment in Ohio or social issues and so on. And for now, Kerry has joined the debate with them."

Historically, war-time presidents tend to be successful in their re-election bids. A notable exception was Lyndon Johnson, who abandoned his bid for another term in 1968 because of growing opposition to the war in Vietnam.