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Terrorism, Iraq War and US Economy Making Their Way onto Campaign Trail - 2004-04-09

U.S. National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice testifies before the independent commission investigating the September 11th terrorist attacks. There’s more heavy fighting between coalition forces and insurgents in Iraq. And President Bush and Democratic challenger Senator John Kerry square off on the U.S. economy. On Focus, VOA’s Victor Morales leads a roundtable discussion on the events making news this week in U.S. politics.

MR. MORALES: On Thursday, Condoleezza Rice defended President Bush’s handling of the terrorist threat during his first few months in office. She told the commission investigating the 9/11 attacks that there was no concrete evidence al-Qaida intended to strike inside the United States and that there was “no silver bullet” that could have prevented the attacks.

But the debate over America’s preparedness against terrorism is making its way onto the campaign trail. So too is the ongoing violence in Iraq where this week U.S. forces suffered dozens of combat casualties.

Also on the minds of many Americans is the state of the U.S. economy. Some 300,000 new jobs were added last month. And many analysts are wondering whether the economy will be the deciding factor in November’s presidential election.

Joining me to assess the U.S. political scene are: VOA’s Senior Political Analyst and Director of VOA English Programs, Neal Lavon; and our National Correspondent, Jim Malone.

Jim, let me begin with you. The big talk this week is the 9/11 Commission. Is there any indication that this investigation is affecting President Bush’s popularity ratings?

MR. MALONE: Earlier, with the testimony of Richard Clarke, the former counter-terrorism czar, there was some indication that it might have been nibbling away at the President’s approval ratings in a minor way. Now that we’ve had Condoleezza Rice testify, bolstering the administration’s record on terrorism, that may help the President recover some minor lost ground in some of the polls. We’ll have to wait and see whether that happens. The important thing here, of course, is what’s going on in Iraq at the moment and the 9/11 question. These are the two pillars of the President’s re-election strategy. So any sort of attack on them by Democrats or others is worrisome to the White House and they’re going to be aggressive in responding.

MR. MORALES: Neal, since we’re talking about those pillars, are these hearings impacting a key pillar of President Bush’s re-election appeal -- that is his handling of foreign policy and national security?

MR. LAVON: They certainly are raising lots of questions. I’ll agree with Jim. I think that public opinion polling data to date have shown that while the public may not fault the Bush administration for things that happened prior to 9/11, certainly the response to 9/11 is fair game for the public to judge the President’s policies. And I think, of course, the events in Iraq will determine exactly where the public falls on this.

MR. MALONE: Also, picking up on Neal’s point, it’s been kind of amazing that when you look over the past year, the support for what we did in Iraq has sort of held fairly firm -- upper 50’s to around 60%. Look at almost any poll; you can track the line right across for the past several months. But with the developments of late in Iraq, there has been a kind of a diminution in support in terms of how the President is handling the Iraq situation now. There is more concern about that. There certainly is concern about casualties. And the problem here is this: If we have a long time period during which the casualties grow and there is a sustained level of high casualties, that, of course, would be of great political concern to the White House.

MR. LAVON: That’s true and I think that the Democrats, the opposition party to President Bush (and the Republicans) can criticize the policy, but once you start criticizing the troops or the way the war is being carried out, that’s a very fine line to draw. In fact, I haven’t heard Kerry talking much about that lately. He has been talking about the economy.

MR. MORALES: Jim, that’s a question for you. He has been criticizing President Bush’s handling of Iraq, but is he offering any solutions?

MR. MALONE: You know, it’s a fair question. In direct response to questions, Senator Kerry tends to talk about how he wishes the Bush administration would engage more our allies and with the United Nations, and that if we had done that, we would be in a better position. He doesn’t like the fact that there will be a June 30th hand over of governing authority in Iraq. He thinks that date was arbitrarily selected, maybe for U.S. domestic political reasons -- to get American troops out of Iraq before the election. But Senator Kerry voted for the war. Senator Kerry the other day at Georgetown University was calling on the audience to support the troops in Iraq. So he is sort of caught by a double-edged sword on this. He can’t be calling for a complete withdrawal. Virtually no Democrats are at this point. But his point is how the President and the administration are going about it that’s of concern to him.

MR. LAVON: That’s true. And if the economy keeps performing like it did in the last month when it added 300,000 jobs and that issue becomes much less contentious, then it will be a referendum on the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq. Of course, then both parties would be held hostage to events there.

MR. MORALES: Let me ask both of you, and stay with Neal for just a moment: Are we getting a feel for how the issue of the economy is resonating with voters?

MR. LAVON: It’s hard to say because sometimes voters are more pessimistic than events warrant. This was the first time -- last month -- that there was a very optimistic jobs assessment. While many people have worries about the economy, if there are further job improvement totals than these recent figures, then that should ease the situation somewhat; though I think that there always will be an undercurrent in which people are concerned where the economy is headed.


MR. MALONE: I think that the jobs report that Neal cited was very good news for the Bush White House. They’ve been waiting for this for months because there were these dribbling returns each month of just a paltry number of jobs being created. And that, it turns out, has been the number one economic concern. It’s not inflation; it’s not interest rates or that kind of thing. It is jobs, especially jobs that have been lost overseas through trade agreements. So that certainly was somewhat of a turnaround that the White House welcomed. There seems to be this “ying and yang” approach on the major issues we’re seeing. If Iraq is up, the economy may be improving; if the economy deteriorates, Iraq may be calm. I think we’re going to see this bipolar issue/dilemma right through November.

MR. LAVON: One of the things I’ve always subscribed to is that an election involving the re-election chances of an incumbent usually is a referendum on the incumbent. If you like the incumbent, if you like the way things are going, you vote for the incumbent. But if you don’t, you don’t. And here the attitudes are so hardened on both sides it’s what I imagine a 19th century election would have been like in which someone once wrote that there are two armies mobilizing. Here you have people who support the President and people who can’t stand the President. Very few minds are going to be influenced by what happens. It seems it’s going to be a very small universe of voters who actually will be in play during this election period.

MR. MALONE: I was just going to follow up on that. They (the Democrats and the Republicans) actually are targeting a fairly narrow group of the electorate in the end to sway the people in the middle. Independent voters -- they’re going to be the key to this election.

MR. MORALES: We have just a few seconds left, let me ask each of you beginning with Jim Malone: Overall, is John Kerry defining himself for the American voter?

MR. MALONE: He has been trying, but I must say there has been a number of Bush advertisements out lately and we’ve seen Senator Kerry’s approval ratings dipping a bit. That may indicate that the Bush ads, coming in this sort of down period in the election cycle, could be having an effect that’s favorable to the President.

MR. MORALES: And Neal Lavon.

MR. LAVON: Also he has to define himself and why he’s going for the presidency. If you try to think of a one- or two-word identification tag for the Kerry presidential campaign, you can’t do it yet. That’s not to say he won’t do it, but that’s what he needs to do.

MR. MORALES: Gentlemen, we’ll have to leave it there. I would like to thank my guests: VOA Senior Political Analyst and Director of VOA English Programs, Neal Lavon; and our National Correspondent, Jim Malone.

For Focus, I’m Victor Morales.