With less than 40 days left until the U.S. presidential election, most public opinion polls give President Bush a slight lead over Democrat John Kerry. The polls also suggest that Iraq could be a determining factor in who wins the White House on November second.
Recent polls give the president a lead, but also indicate that the race may be tightening a bit.
Some Democrats believe John Kerry may be closing the gap, because he is now focusing his rhetorical attacks on Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq. "And there is just no question about it," said Mr. Kerry. "The president's misjudgment, miscalculation and mismanagement of the war in Iraq all make the war on terror harder to win. George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority. I would have made Osama bin Laden the priority."
The polls have long suggested that this election will be largely decided by three major issues, Iraq, the war on terrorism and the state of the U.S. economy.
The president continues to emphasize his record of leadership in the war on terror and to make the argument that the Iraq invasion was a major part of the overall war on terrorism.
"Anybody who says that we are safer with Saddam Hussein in power is wrong," said Mr. Bush. "We went into Iraq because Saddam Hussein defied the demands of the free world. We went into Iraq after diplomacy had failed, and we went into Iraq because I understand after September the 11 that we must take threats seriously before they come to hurt us."
The president's surge in the polls began in August, after a group of anti-Kerry Vietnam veterans began running television ads questioning his fitness as a potential commander in chief.
University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato says the Republicans effectively used their convention in New York at the end of August to raise doubts about Senator Kerry.
"But even more important was the Republican convention, which was much more effectively run with a better communications strategy than the Democratic convention," he noted. "Those two events taken together have given Bush a slight lead, not an absolutely impregnable lead, but a slight lead. Whether that holds to Election Day is anybody's guess."
In addition to building a lead in several national polls, recent surveys suggest the president is also gaining on Senator Kerry in several so-called battleground states that are considered crucial to the outcome on November second.
Political strategists say the coming presidential debates offer Senator Kerry his best and perhaps last opportunity to shift the momentum of the campaign.
The series of three presidential debates begin Thursday, in Florida where the candidates will discuss foreign policy issues. A single vice presidential debate will be held on October 5.
Stephen Hess is a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution here in Washington. He says there is good reason why both the Kerry and Bush campaigns believe the debates could be a crucial turning point in this year's campaign.
"Well, all of the debates are important, because most people see the campaign through a couple of minutes or even a couple of seconds on television," explained Mr. Hess. "There are only a few times when they sit still and watch the two candidates go at it for 90 minutes."
Televised debates have played a significant role in several past presidential campaigns beginning with the 1960 contest between Democrat John Kennedy and Republican Richard Nixon.