Kerry up, Bush down in seesaw campaign

March 29, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - In retrospect, it's easy to see why the Bush administration discouraged congressional creation of the commission exploring how and why the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened and why it foot-dragged in cooperating with the ostensibly nonpartisan panel.

Last week's hearings diverted attention from a bad previous week for Democratic challenger John Kerry, and they put the brakes on a consequent roll for the Bush re-election campaign.

The president had thrown Mr. Kerry on the defensive over his confusing explanations about his vote against approving $87 billion for the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, and over the Massachusetts senator's injudicious claim that unidentified foreign leaders had told him they wanted him to beat Mr. Bush in November.

But then came the 9/11 hearings, highlighted by the sizzling charges by Mr. Bush's former counterterrorism chief, Richard A. Clarke, that his old boss had failed in the seven months before the attacks to address the threat with sufficient urgency.

The White House reacted by unleashing a coordinated assault, but not only on Mr. Clarke's allegations. It also painted the man himself as a disgruntled underling who first praised Mr. Bush but then turned on him to, among other things, peddle a political kiss-and-tell book.

Mr. Clarke cleverly, if sincerely, cut the ground out from under his critics from the outset of his testimony by publicly apologizing to the families of the 9/11 victims for the government's failure, and for his own. His welcome words were an immediate counter to the character assassination against him by the Bush political machine.

Though the hearings also aired criticisms by Mr. Clarke and other witnesses of the Clinton administration, Democrat Kerry suddenly had a lifeline tossed to him. On top of that, his party held a huge fund raiser the next night that celebrated the election-year unity constructed largely by the deep anger and hostility among Democrats toward Mr. Bush the man and his policies.

The party trotted out its two surviving former presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and most of Mr. Kerry's 2004 rivals for the Democratic nomination in a televised love-fest. Mr. Kerry responded by making clear he wanted both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Carter to campaign for him. The hapless 2000 nominee, Al Gore, who essentially benched Mr. Clinton in his own race, joined in applause, including when Mr. Kerry referred to him as having been "elected but not inaugurated."

Mr. Clinton, to nobody's surprise, outshone the presumptive Democratic nominee with a pep talk that had the faithful out of their seats. Earlier in the day, Mr. Kerry had joined hands with his one-time foe, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, and accepted his endorsement at a rousing rally.

The shift in political fortunes in a week, this time in Mr. Kerry's favor, was a commentary on this year's presidential campaign that most probably will be repeated several times before November, benefiting each candidate.

Since clinching his nomination, Mr. Kerry on the stump has been an uncertain trumpet on whose sour notes the Bush campaign has been swift to capitalize. Mr. Bush occasionally has tooted his own horn in less than mellifluous tones, such as his weak defense of failing to find those weapons of mass destruction.

But for all the heavy-handed efforts by the Bush campaign to define Mr. Kerry and Mr. Clarke negatively, the president finds himself forced into a defensive posture on the central issue he hopes will re-elect him - his conduct of the war on terrorism, including his Iraq adventure.

There is plenty of time for him to get back on the offensive, which his political strategists clearly prefer, and plenty of campaign money with which to do so. But first he must dig himself out of the foxhole in which he finds himself, particularly for seeming to undercut the 9/11 commission.

Declining to let his beleaguered national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, testify in public, and agreeing only to talk privately with the commission's chairman and vice chairman, isn't likely to portray him as the confident "wartime president" that he likes to label himself.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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