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Kerry, Bush Spar Over Iraq - 2004-09-23

The situation in Iraq continues to dominate the U.S. presidential election campaign. While President Bush met with Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi in Washington Thursday, Democrat John Kerry intensified his criticism of the Bush approach on Iraq at a campaign stop in Ohio.

Senator Kerry has made Iraq the focal point of his campaign in recent days. During a news conference in Columbus, Ohio, Mr. Kerry took issue with an upbeat assessment of the situation in Iraq given to Congress earlier in the day by Interim Prime Minister Allawi. Senator Kerry said the Iraqi prime minister was sent before Congress to put the best face on the administration's Iraq policy.

The Massachusetts Democrat again insisted that his plan to reach out for more international help and quickly train Iraqi security forces is preferable to the policy being set by President Bush.

"From day one, I have said we need to be successful," Mr. Kerry said. "From day one, I have offered a road to success. From day one, this president has chosen a different course of action and we Americans are paying a price in the lives of our young and in the dollars being spent by Americans because this president has stubbornly refused to embrace good advice and has stubbornly continued to pursue his own road. I think it is the wrong road and I think we need to change."

Following his meeting with Mr. Allawi at the White House, the president told reporters that the insurgents in Iraq could plan terrorist attacks in the United States and other free nations if U.S. troops were pulled out of Iraq before the country is secured.

In an apparent reference to Senator Kerry, Mr. Bush also said the United States should stay the course in Iraq and not send what he called mixed messages about U.S. intentions in the region.

"It is hard work. The American people know that," Mr. Bush said. "But I believe it is necessary work. And I believe a leader must be consistent and clear and not change positions when times get tough. And the times have been hard. There are hard times. But I understand what mixed messages do. You can embolden an enemy by sending a mixed message. You can dispirit the Iraqi people by sending messages. You send the wrong message to our troops by sending mixed messages. That is why I will continue to lead with clarity and in a resolute way."

Political experts say the recent campaign focus on Iraq confirms their expectation that what happens there over the next several weeks will have a major impact on the November election.

"If the war on terror dominates, the odds are that President Bush will be reelected. If Iraq dominates, however, it could go either way," said Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "It depends on what is happening in Iraq. If it is all bad news, that is bad for President Bush. If he can show progress, then probably the American people will vote to keep him."

A new poll suggests the presidential race may be tightening once again. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll gives the president a 48 to 44-percent lead over Senator Kerry among likely voters. Other recent polls have indicated a slightly larger margin for Mr. Bush, but many experts still predict a close election.