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Iraq Continues To Dominate US Presidential Election Campaign - 2004-05-12

The Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal is dominating the domestic political debate, not only in the halls of Congress but on the presidential campaign trail.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, says the scandal threatens to undermine everything the United States is doing in Iraq.

He was interviewed on MSNBC's 'Imus in the Morning' program. ?This has put our troops at greater risk. It is an unbelievable recruitment tool [for terrorists]. It sets the war on terror back. I think I can fight a more effective war on terror, Don [Imus]. I believe I can bring other countries to the table.?

President Bush has promised a thorough investigation of the prison abuses and vows that justice will be meted out to those convicted of wrongdoing.

But public concern over the situation in Iraq has been compounded by the disturbing image of a young American contractor beheaded by terrorists who said they were taking revenge for the prison abuse scandal.

President Bush condemned the killing of Nicholas Berg at the White House on Wednesday.

?Their intention is to shake our will,? he said. ?Their intention is to shake our confidence. Yet, by their actions, they remind us of how desperately parts of the world need free societies, peaceful societies. And we will complete our mission. We will complete our task.?

Public opinion polls suggest the situation in Iraq is taking a toll on the president's popularity with less than six months to go until the election. But at the same time, many voters seem to be withholding judgment on whether they are comfortable with the idea of Senator Kerry replacing him.

William Schneider is a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington. ?Americans are raising some deep questions about Bush,? Mr. Schneider said. ?His approval rating, at 49 (percent), is teetering right on the edge of failure to get re-elected. But they are not at this point ready to embrace John Kerry. The president has effectively raised questions about Kerry.?

Those questions have been raised thanks largely to a $60 million television advertising blitz by the Bush campaign that has questioned John Kerry's record on national security. Kerry supporters have launched an ad campaign of their own intended to get voters more familiar with who John Kerry is as a person and what he stands for as a candidate.

Senator Kerry has been talking about health care this week while the president has focused on education. But for the most part, the presidential campaign has been overtaken by events in Iraq.

Polling analyst Karlyn Bowman says, for the moment, a majority of Americans appears willing to try and finish the mission in Iraq.

?Right now, people are not confident that we are winning nor are they confident that we are willing to do what it takes to win, nor are they confident that we are losing,? Ms. Bowman said. ?But they clearly are not ready for us to get out. They are very anxious.?

But Ms. Bowman says those poll numbers could easily shift depending on events in Iraq, which could become a determining factor in an election campaign that at the moment is a dead heat between President Bush and Senator Kerry.