WASHINGTON - Just as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean seems headed for the sidelines as a Democratic presidential candidate, his main theme - President Bush's pre-emptive war against Iraq - is re-emerging as a central campaign issue.
Dr. Dean has already returned his campaign rhetoric to the issue that helped make him the front-runner before his misfortune in the Iowa caucuses and subsequent primary defeats. But the renewed focus on the war isn't likely to resuscitate his candidacy as much as give more anti-Bush ammunition to the whole Democratic field.
After fading for a time with the capture of Saddam Hussein, the controversy over the war has heated up again in the wake of several developments rekindling questions about Mr. Bush's decision to invade Iraq without solid U.N. backing.
The first was the resignation of U.S. weapons inspector David Kay and his report that American intelligence was "all wrong" about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - the president's chief selling point in launching the war. Mr. Kay said no such weapons were found.
The second, in the wake of Mr. Kay's report, was the retreat by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell from his certainty of a year ago before the United Nations that Iraq had WMD and delivery systems. After being contacted by the White House like an errant schoolboy, Mr. Powell dutifully retreated from his retreat.
Next, President Bush, under pressure from Democrats and such Republicans as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, agreed to appoint a bipartisan presidential commission, including Mr. McCain, to investigate pre-invasion intelligence. But the president's decision to broaden the investigation to include intelligence on proliferation of WMD by other countries drew more Democratic criticism as a maneuver to change the focus.
The charter for the commission triggered still more criticism because it stipulated that the investigation be confined to the quality of the intelligence itself, not on alleged hyping of the intelligence by the administration in selling the war to Congress and the American public.
Finally, CIA Director George J. Tenet, in a speech at Georgetown University, defended U.S. intelligence officers but affirmed Mr. Kay's report that no WMD had been found. At the same time, Mr. Tenet said, his analysts "never said there was an imminent threat."
That last comment served to rekindle a running dispute between administration critics and defenders. The defenders have argued that neither Mr. Bush nor any of his chief aides ever used the word "imminent" as a justification for starting the war. The critics have called this position semantic nitpicking, noting that on numerous occasions, Mr. Bush and administration officials have used other words such as "immediate" threat and "gathering danger" to convey the same meaning.
In any event, the president indicated sufficient concern about the re-emergence of the war as a prime campaign issue by going to South Carolina on the heels of the Democratic presidential primary there last week and agreeing to a rare television appearance on NBC's Meet the Press.
With Dr. Dean's candidacy on the ropes, the other Democratic candidates, backed by the recent statements of Mr. Kay, Mr. Powell and Mr. Tenet, are now intensifying their argument that Mr. Bush rushed to war prematurely, using the faulty intelligence given to him to bypass the United Nations.
In response, the president continues to talk of the invasion of Iraq in terms of taking action "to defend the American people." The fact that his own WMD expert says such weapons weren't there, and that his CIA director says he never warned of an "imminent threat," makes Mr. Bush's rationale for haste sound more hollow than ever.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.