WASHINGTON -- Like a bolt out of the blue, foreign policy suddenly has become an issue in a presidential campaign that until now had a single focus, the sluggish economy.
This ought to be good news for President Bush. It shifts attention away from pressure for change at home to the area of his greatest success. And it offers the possibility that Bill Clinton may be tripped up by inexperience and seem unworthy of the public's trust when it comes to national security.
But there are dangers for the president. His actions, such as Friday's dispatch of ground troops to Kuwait for a training exercise, will be scrutinized for signs that he is manipulating foreign policy for political gain. And a strong challenge by Mr. Clinton will subject his record to a tough standard that tests whether he is in tune with a fundamentally altered world.
The Bush record is vulnerable on many counts, Democrats say. On Iraq, the president obviously will trumpet his widely praised assembly of an international coalition and quick prosecution of the Persian Gulf war with relatively few U.S. casualties.
But the glow from Operation Desert Storm has diminished amid mounting evidence, dug up by congressional Democrats, of the Bush administration's failed attempt before August 1990 to improve ties with Iraq.
Rep. Les Aspin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, charges that the Bush administration has failed to maintain consistent pressure on Iraq since the war, resorting instead to an approach of "threat and forget."
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's continued defiance damages Mr. Bush, regardless of whether Democrats agreed with him at the time -- as did their vice presidential nominee, Sen. Al Gore -- on how to end the gulf war.
"Having Saddam is the same as having a recession; the incumbent takes the heat," said Democratic consultant Greg Schneiders.
More broadly, the Clinton camp cites the prewar U.S.-Iraqi relationship and Mr. Bush's policy on China as examples of an excessive tolerance for tyrants left over from the Realpolitik of the Cold War. His response to democratic movements worldwide has been weak, they say.
"There is a democratic tide, yet over and over again he has preferred the status quo to what should be exhilarating change," said a top Clinton adviser.
Their overriding criticism is that the Bush administration has failed to connect foreign policy in the public mind with the domestic goal of a strong economy.
"In a lot of ways he has weakened foreign policy. He has separated it from the American people. The average American doesn't see why we have a stake in anything. Bush never bothers to explain what the stakes are," said Clinton adviser Madeleine Albright.
Democrats may attack Secretary of State James A. Baker III's expected shift to run the campaign from the White House in two ways: as a sign of campaign-driven neglect of world affairs or of a politicization of foreign policy.
But overall, the advantages outweigh the risks for Mr. Bush in bringing foreign policy to the fore.
For one thing, he can perhaps have more of an impact on world events than on domestic affairs in the months ahead.
A prime example is the effort toward peace in the Middle East. Mr. Baker has set the goal of reaching an autonomy agreement between Israel and the Palestinians by November.
If such an accord is reached, Democrats concede, it will be a Bush-Baker triumph, one bolstered by warming U.S.-Israeli relations.
"It could conceivably end up looking pretty good for him," said Ms. Albright.
It was inevitable that world affairs eventually would loom larger in the campaign. Mr. Bush's foreign policy successes will dominate the first day of the Republican National Convention. And the issue will likely be the subject of one or more presidential campaign debates.
As the election approaches, Republicans say, voters will start to think more about whom they want as commander in chief.
The surprise was that the issue popped up this early.
It happened as the result of one of a series of public statements Mr. Clinton has been issuing on topical subjects, such as China and South Africa.
Such statements have largely been ignored. But one issued a week ago on the violence in former Yugoslavia triggered a furious White House response.
Mr. Clinton urged the United States to take the lead in ensuring, with air strikes if necessary, that humanitarian aid would reach Bosnia-Herzegovina. He also urged that U.S. Navy vessels that are in the Adriatic Sea tracking violations of sanctions against Serbia be allowed to board vessels and that Serbia's regime be prosecuted for war crimes.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called the statement "reckless." But other administration officials conceded that the proposal was only slightly more activist than the administration's stated policy.